Spencer caught in the trap

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The Independent Online
This week I should like to have a look at the case of Adrian Spencer. He is the Cambridge centre who came on as a substitute in the University match. He had previously played rugby league for Cambridge.

There is nothing wrong with that. Other players have done the same, notably Ian Williams, the former Australian wing who now turns out for Japan. There is complete transferability between union and league at amateur level. This is one of several changes in the relationship between union and league which have taken place in the last decade.

Former league players who have never played the union game can, subject to the International Board's confirmation in March, take it up in the autumn of their playing days, or even before, if they decide to make the switch. The Scottish Rugby Union is currently considering a case of the latter kind.

Tony Howard, who is 26, moved to Scotland after playing his last league match for Salford in 1993. His local club, Grangemouth, supports his application to play union. The SRU is thinking about putting his case to the IB.

Former league players who, unlike Howard, have originally played union, even at the highest level, can return to their original code as managers or coaches. An example is provided by David Watkins, now coach of his old club, Newport.

But former league players who originally played union and wish to revert to their first choice cannot do so - unless they are serving either in HM Services or in HM Prisons.

Stuart Evans is doing neither. Instead, he is serving in a pub, in Neath. He played for Neath, Swansea and Wales before moving to St Helens. But the move did not suit him. He is now talking about taking legal action to secure his reinstatement.

Spencer's case is different. He played a game with London Crusaders (now the Broncos). But he did not, it seems, receive any money for his appearance. He played as an amateur among professionals.

The nearest parallel is that of Steve Pilgrim, of Wasps. He had a trial for Leeds, was detected by some nosey parker, and was punished with 12 months' suspension. Pilgrim's previously promising career has never recovered from this spell out in the cold.

In the Spencer, case the nosey parkers were the rugby league authorities themselves. They drew his connection with the Broncos to the attention of the Rugby Football Union in order to expose the situation - or to force a row.

The RFU's amateur status committee meets in February, when Spencer's case will be discussed. The reinstatement of former professionals (as in the Howard case) is to be finalised by the IB in March. John Jeavons-Fellows is one of the RFU's representativeson the board. He was quoted in a Sunday paper as saying that it was "very unlikely" that the 12-month ban for a player in Spencer's position would be reviewed at the board meeting in March. "In my eyes he's professionalised," Jeavons-Fellows said.

The latter is described to me by the RFU as a "retired businessman" who "works from home and runs an estate". He is clearly no lawyer, for he has already made any decision in Spencer's case challengeable for bias in the courts. But I think any challenge should be made on a wider basis - and that the Rugby League has a moral obligation to fund it.

If, however, the challenge fails, or if the RFU takes action before it is mounted, Spencer should not be punished alone. The entire Cambridge University club should be suspended for 12 months as well. For, if they did not know of their player's position,they ought to have known.

But I do not want to end on a confrontational note. We have had a marvellous season so far or, at any rate, a season containing two marvellous matches: Oxford against Cambridge and the Barbarians against South Africa. There have also been two fine team displays, by England against Canada and by South Africa, alas, against Swansea (for I distinguish between a marvellous match and a fine display).

Nevertheless, the Five Nations' Championship will probably be dominated once again by the goalkickers: by Thierry Lacroix, Neil Jenkins, Eric Elwood, Rob Andrew and, if he is picked, Gavin Hastings. A merry Christmas to all my readers.

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