The gift and the gamble

Dave Hadfield assesses the possible benefits and pitfalls of a Super League future
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The Independent Online
SAY what you like about rugby league, its sense of timing is remarkable. The centenary of the meeting that decided upon a split from the Rugby Football Union is just nine days away. Other sports commemorate such occasions with gala dinners and boring speeches; league is marking its hundred years with a huge leap into the unknown.

The facts reveal such a radical departure that they bear repeating, just to make sure they haven't changed once more. The season that begins this weekend will be the last winter during which professional rugby league is played in Britain. For union, a code which has been trying to drive league into the sea for 100 years, that is the good news; the bad is that 13-a-side rugby will be played - refinanced and reinvigorated - every summer.

The Stones Centenary Championship - the very name is a brave attempt to invest it with a significance which everyone fears it may lack - will be played until the end of January. The Challenge Cup will form a bridge through February and March, with Rupert Murdoch's creature, the Super League, kicking off on 28 March. Provided the Australian end of his operation is up and running at the same time,the top four from both competitions will play off in September.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, a Great Britain side will then play a series of internationals against Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand in October. But it is part of the contract that only Super League-aligned players will take part in those matches.

Conversely, October's Halifax Centenary World Cup, which is being staged in Britain, will feature only Australians who have not signed for the Super League. The Australian Rugby League, backed by Murdoch's arch-rival Kerry Packer, are still fighting a furious rearguard action and their control over selection for the Australian side is one of the best weapons they have left.

Australia is the original battleground in this war and there is no sign of a truce breaking out. The average supporter there is disgusted by it all. "People who used to go to every match aren't even looking for the results now," said Brian Smith, the St George coach soon bound for the Bradford Bulls. "Blokes aren't even arguing with their wives over what to have on TV. That's how bad it is."

It is the people, unallied to either side, who are the gloomiest. "The game is ruined," said Norman Tasker, editor of the game's best-selling weekly, Rugby League Week. "I can't see it winning back the ground it has lost."

Although the Super League in Britain is an offshoot of the hostilities in Australia, it is hard to take a similar view. There was a thriving scene to ruin in Australia; here, for all the excitement of the game at its best, of Wigan and on occasion Great Britain, there was not. In Australia, the rival gorillas have pulled the treehouse down; in Britain, it was falling apart of its own volition, and the offer from one of them to build a new one, to a radically new design, was irresistible.

Much as one might mistrust the prime movers involved, the bullying and the bumbling, it was inevitable that British rugby league was going to take the pounds 87m on offer. The question of what has to be done in return comes later. First of all, the game in Britain had better forget all about making its own decisions. It will have to do what it is told, be that playing at five in the morning, introducing a draft system to even out the competition or accepting rule changes. Otherwise, the rug will be pulled away. That is the bottom line underlying the personal ownership of a sport and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Looking at the position in a more sanguine light, it is possible to visualise a wonderful opportunity. What the game in Britain must do is to treat the pounds 87m as a once-in-a-lifetime gift and a chance to set its house in order. What we need is a structure that will be self- sustaining after Murdoch's global strategy decrees that he switches his attention elsewhere. And that could be after the five years' generous support upon which the game is counting - or it could be tomorrow.

So far, there is little sign of the riches being spent with the long- term future in mind. The first tranche of Murdoch money has gone direct to clubs, rather than into any central funds for youth or schools development, and there is no check on how they spend it. Some clubs have shown an awareness of what is needed by financing a more capable administrative set-up; more, however, have been paying off accumulated debts and paying inflated fees and contracts for average players.

There is a danger that rugby league's chief benefit from the Murdoch- Packer skirmish will be one generation of exceptionally well-paid players. Nice for them - and no one who appreciates the demands of the modern game would begrudge them a penny or a cent - but the more thoughtful players, even beneficiaries such as the former Wigan players Phil Clarke and Denis Betts, who are now being handsomely paid in the southern hemisphere, know that dotting the sport with lottery winners is not necessarily a sound foundation for the future.

Speculation about that future is tempered by the recognition that, this time last year, nobody had foreseen any of the changes which have since swept the game. It is no exaggeration to call those changes the biggest since the original decision to go it alone 100 years ago.

Not the least of the unanswered questions is how the relationship between the two codes of rugby will be affected. It is fashionable now in league circles to say that, once union has embraced open professionalism, as it is doing in its own slow, agonised way, there will be no reason for friction between the two games.

The truth is that there has never been any "defence of amateurism" justification for union's prejudice against league; the union zealots hate rugby league not because it is partly professional but because it is rugby league and because it spoilt the party a century ago.

The relationship, however, could become more complex, especially if one man controls both games at their top level. Although league's reliance on union players is often over-stated, a change from the present position of one-way traffic between the codes would be significant. There is no reason now why players should not play both codes, as they have done, on the sly, in the north of England, for most of the century; and there is no reason why Jonathan Davies should not go back to Welsh union after the end of his Warrington league contract.

We are, after all, free men, entitled to do our running around a pitch, paid or unpaid, under whatever set of rules we choose. Or we are until Mr Murdoch tells us otherwise.