The high price of selling off allegiances

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The Independent Online
IT MUST qualify as the greatest sporting irony of the century. In the week that decades of discrimination by the lords of rugby union against the yeomen of rugby league are finally and officially denounced by a parliamentary body, the leaders of the abused and down-trodden northern code are unable to celebrate this historic moment with appropriate joy - they're too busy authorising a discrimination policy of their own.

Anyone who has loaned even a puny shoulder to the long, uphill push to see justice done to players unashamed to draw an honest wage from playing rugby will have been bemused at league's bizarre act, despoiling the freedom their game has won at last by refusing to play internationals against anyone in Australasia who is not a member of the Super League of Rupert Murdoch, into whose hands the entire British game has been sold.

At least rugby union's discrimination had a touch of class about it, based as it was on genuine fear and loathing that began its fermentation 100 years ago when the big rugby clubs of the north broke away to form their rebel league. At least the union code has been true to its roots, which are sunk deeply into ground well mulched by the the moral superiority that comes from the luxury of not being seen to be playing for benefits. The attitude has become less defensible by the year but, in mitigation, it was one of the prejudices everyone in union was born into and we all know how difficult it is to dispense with those.

In contrast, rugby league's discrimination is so brand new it still has the bank-note wrappers around it and, furthermore, reinforces the age- old difference between the two; union do it for the pleasure while league do it for the money. It is because their paymaster demands it that the league have agreed to ostracise players who remain faithful to the official game in Australia, which I presume includes some British players.

"Considering our financial benefit, we have to give something back," confessed the British league's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, when explaining their agreement to play internationals only against teams made up exclusively of Murdoch players. If that "something" includes surrendering the mountain of sympathy and goodwill they've accumulated through the years, one trembles to think of what other concessions have been promised.

It could be said that the Australian Rugby League, who have held out against Murdoch and are furious at the British sell-out, are contributing to the discrimination by banning all their players who have defected to the Super League. But the ARL are the governing body of the game in that country and have no option but to disown anyone who deliberately steps out of their jurisdiction.

Over here, it is the British rugby league who have done the defecting and, as the game's parental authority, have abandoned the ARL without whom rugby league would be much the poorer as a global sport. As Lindsay's Australian counterpart Ken Arthurson pointed out, they are destroying an international relationship that dates back to 1908. Indeed, the standards of the game in Britain would not have been as high they are without the Australian example. The touring team they sent over in 1982 was probably the greatest seen in either code and set the tone for the improvements the British game has seen since - a transition not hindered by the number of Aussies who have coached and played here.

This willingness on behalf of the league to sell their allegiances as well as the game has dismayed many of their admirers not least those in parliament. Apart from the members of the National Heritage Select Committee, whose report last week attacked union shamateurism and their banning of league players, there are the supporters of David Hinchliffe's Sports (Discrimination) Bill and those others who are calling for a referral of the Murdoch deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Alas, the deal does not appear to fall within the scope of the MMC. The League, however, still face writs from two dissenting clubs and a High Court injunction from another and there is the threat of an investigation by a Select Committee still hot from their savaging of union. The League chairman, Rodney Walker, will meet MPs this week to explain their motives.

"Only the British seem to have the ability to make unqualified good news sound like a disaster," Walker said last week. The chairman is not the first to suggest that anyone against the deal is a doom-laden dolt. It is a theme to be noticed especially in those parts of the media in Murdoch's empire. Not for one moment would I suggest that fellow pundits allow the source of their income to govern their opinions but it is a fact that one of the effects of cross-media fertilisation is that commentators have to be careful where they tread.

On Sky Sports, to whose rugby league coverage I am devoted, it has yet to be suggested that there is the slightest opposition to the deal, and anyone who opposes the move to summer and the creation of revitalised opposition to Wigan would have to be an idiot. But it's the deal we're objecting to, not the move.

Summer rugby league has long been an obvious option. A year ago I padded out this space with the words: "Rugby league is one sport that could benefit from a move to the summer and thus run its season parallel to that in Australia, giving rise to all sorts of play-off opportunities." You didn't have to be a genius, not even one of the Australian variety, to spot that, and I would have thought more of the RFL if they had organised this move, laid down the objectives, and then sought a television deal.

Football's Premiership was designed by the Football Association and the clubs. They didn't get it right first time but it belonged to them. They didn't have to surrender their sovereignty as the rugby league have done.

On Friday afternoon came an interesting announcement that the Great Britain tour of Australia next year was going to go ahead after all. The announcement came from John Ribot, chief executive of the Australian Super League. The British team, however, would only be playing against those who have signed with Murdoch.

If you were an Australian rugby league player, would that sound like a threat to you? Suddenly, in the world of rugby league, new voices are calling the plays.

I TRUST the game of snooker will attempt to stop bookmakers offering frame betting in future championships. Whatever the outcome of the inquiry into Peter Francisco's role in his 10-2 defeat by Jimmy White, the game neither needs nor deserves this sort of shadow.

Judging by the ease with which they can spot an abnormal bet, there's not a lot of profit in it. Few games are as vulnerable to a contrived result, so there is always going to be suspicion. But if I had placed a hunch bet on a 10-2 result, I would be most peeved not to get my money. Similarly, if they decide not to pay out, I would expect my stake to be returned if I had backed 10-3 or any other score.

To the bookies who want it all ways, may I commend the old saying: "If you can't take the heat, stay out of the cushion."

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