Silva's path to golden future

Owen Slot talks to the player who has already crossed the divide
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AT Rodney Parade, they are already speaking in superlatives about the first man ever to play union, vanish up north and then come back again. He had a successful return, scoring a try in his first Heineken League game, and he has not been off the Newbridge team list since. This is the Jonathan Davies prototype, Matthew Silva, a man with a story to tell which suggests that, if Davies is allowed to return to union, there will be many more to follow.

Silva played for Pontypool until 1991 when, aged 21, he signed for Halifax. Less than a year after he had moved, however, the coach who signed him left and the coach who followed said he was surplus to requirements. From earning a good pounds 500 a week, Silva found himself in the second team on pounds 50 for a win and pounds 20 for a loss. "When they come to sign you, they know your financial position," he said. "They knew I had pretty much nothing, and that was what they got me for."

Soon Silva was told that he was to be transferred, and a little later he decided to cut his losses, quit and return home. "It's a meat market up there," he said. "Players could pick up the paper and find that they'd been transferred. I was very unhappy and I would like people to know it's not all it's cracked up to be. Also I was the only one to admit I'd made a mistake. A lot of the other converts are just saving face. I'm waiting for one of them to do a back page saying 'I don't like it up here', because they don't. I'm sure they'd come back if it was worth it."

Jonathan Davies's decision suggests that they would. Adrian Hadley, who plays for Salford, confirmed this: "Look at the Welsh rugby league team, I guarantee we'll all go back to live, so if we were given the right package to play, too, that would be a good end to our careers. If you find me a union club with a lot of money, get in touch."

So there is the inclination to cross the gangway. Silva was allowed to travel it because the International Rugby Board, having thought his playing career over, decreed in March that league players could return to union after a three-year gap. The IRB discussed the issue again last week and are today expected to scrap even the three-year clause, so Davies and others may be allowed to follow.

What of their contracts with the league clubs? Hadley believes it won't be a problem: "They are different sports. I can't see them stopping you from retiring from one and going to the other."

When, or if, they do return, they can be expected to be stars on their old stage. "I'm definitely better than I was," Silva said, attributing his improvement to his experience in the North. "I know how to peak physically and I'm a better communicator on the pitch." Hadley explains that this is only inevitable: "Your defence gets better when you go to league and you're a full-time professional. You're training all the time and your handling gets better. A lot of union forwards can't handle at all; all league forwards can." So confident is Silva that he has set his sights on a Welsh union cap. "I think I've got five years left in me," he said. "And because of it I'd like to think that, by the time I'm 30, I'll be driving a Mercedes."

Gareth Davies, the Cardiff chief executive who was the first to declare an interest in Davies, says that we should not expect the Welsh Rugby League World Cup team to change codes en bloc. "There is a delicate business of being seen to be paying large fees for league players when you've got 25-odd home-grown players getting a fraction of it," he said. "Jonathan Davies is very much an exception in my mind."

But if, however, the return of league players to union confirms that the rugby world has been turned on its head, normality can be found in the RFU, which, true to its character, has been slow to adapt. Though the IRB instituted this three-year qualifying period, the individual unions are not obliged to follow it, a loophole the RFU has exploited. This explains why two internationals who went to league - Steve Redfern (Leicester and England) and Gary Pearce (Llanelli and Wales) - are forbidden from playing competitive rugby in England and, as a result, are considering legal action. It also explains why Harlequins would do well to think again on their offer to Davies. As the rules stand, they could give him the world and the most he could give in return would be his best in a few friendlies.