The five-year plan for three of a kind

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The Independent Online
The players of Bath and Wigan trooped off Twickenham arm in arm on Saturday - a sight that would have been unthinkable in itself a few months ago.

"Bridges have been built. Walls have been knocked down," said Joe Lydon, Wigan's football manager and, for 40 minutes, their stand-off half.

The question now is where those bridges lead and what lies behind the walls that have been so carefully maintained for the last 101 years. Was Saturday afternoon's display of mutual respect merely the end of a harmless experiment or the start of a train of events that will lead inexorably to one code? The League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, is consistent on this point. He says that unification will come "within five years".

The only comfort for those of us who instinctively mistrust any talk of permanent and complete merger is that he has been saying it will come within five years for at least the last two. It could be, like the economic recovery, one of those events that is always just around the corner.

Besides, there are fatal flaws with the whole concept of one game of rugby for everyone.

One of the conveniently ignored facts about rugby league is that there is already a schism within it: not merely a political one, which is par for the course, but in the way the game is played.

Only highly trained full-time athletes can keep up with the game of professional rugby league as it is now constituted. The amateurs already play a different, less demanding version.

When I helped run an amateur rugby league side I would never use the word "amateur" in the club's name, on the grounds that you do not boast about not being good enough to get paid. Now I would welcome some sort of label to reassure potential recruits that they do not have to be supermen.

So while Lindsay and the Rugby Football Union's secretary, Tony Hallett - a matching pair of pragmatists who have no difficulty in singing from the same song sheet - harmonise over there being one game of rugby, that game cannot be much akin to professional rugby league. Not enough people are capable of playing it.

But nor could it look much like rugby union. John Hall and Brian Ashton were marvelling at Twickenham on Saturday that the ball had been in play for over 40 minutes, almost twice as long as in the average Courage League match.

Worse than that: for much of the time the ball is "in play" it is tied up in rucks and mauls, which, whilst they may be challenging for the participants and fascinating for the cognoscenti, are unlikely ever to persuade an extra spectator through the turnstiles.

So rather than the vision of one game in our lifetime, a more realistic pattern might be for there to be three, co-existing happily because they have set out to be different things to different people.

By far the most numerically significant would be a game very much like rugby union is now, and which can be played at all levels and standards.

Indeed, that is the greatest strength of union; there is always a level at which the 40-something can play - and then sink his money into the club house.

Lydon made one of the better rugby jokes when he said that he and the Wigan coach, Graeme West, who also played, had been penalised by the referee "for not retiring... two years ago."

But both of them could play social rugby union until they draw their pensions - something that ensures that game's survival.

Then there would be a game very much like amateur rugby league is now and professional rugby league used to be, for the smaller number who like their recreation to be more demanding.

At the top, played on world-wide satellite television by the elite players from both present codes for all or part of the year, would be the new game; 13 aside, without line-outs, but with some compromise on the method of bringing the ball back into play after a tackle. We even have a name for it; it should be called "within five years".

There are obstacles and not just in the shape of people like me who can honestly see nothing in union that they would much like to adopt, other than tidier scrums and a bit more variety at kick-offs. And, for all Lindsay and Hallett's bonhomie, there are still parts of the worldwhere the two codes remain at war.

Another barrier is the fear that many in league have that union's agenda is simply to swallow the other game whole. The drift of players from league to union can be seen as the start of that process. A friend from the unreconstructed traditionalist end of the rugby league spectrum went so far as to predict that it would be "the end for professional rugby league" if Wigan beat Bath.

His reasoning was that rugby union, with its newly unleashed financial clout, would simply sign up all the best rugby league players thus producing reunification by cheque book.

Hall and Ashton admitted that they would, if such a thing were possible, like to see all Wigan's side in Bath shirts. For now, the cross dressing goes no further than swapping shirts after the match; but who knows what unfamiliar garb both games will be wearing within five years.

Like one of those rolling mauls in which the ball spends most of its time, events have developed their own momentum.