The professionals' search for more fun in games

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OF all the strange happenings in rugby over the past year or so, the traffic of players between league and union has been the hardest to get used to for anyone who has experienced the long and bitter emnity between the two codes. The change in the lives of the players concerned has been bewildering.

Yesterday, I was one of five former league players in the Welsh squad playing Scotland at Murrayfield. Scott Gibbs, Allan Bateman, Scott Quinnell, David Young and myself played for the Welsh rugby league team against England in the World Cup at Old Trafford on 21 October, 1995.

That was just 14 months and 28 days ago and if you'd told us when we walked off the pitch that we'd next be together on international duty for the Welsh union team at the start of the 1997 Five Nations' Championship we would have given you a good hiding for taking the mickey. I'd even made a spectacle of myself by collapsing in tears because I thought it was my last time in a Welsh jersey.

Less than a year and a quarter later we were on duty at Murrayfield. More proof of rugby's remarkable revolution was the sight last week of those pillars of English rugby union like Harlequins, Bath and Wasps waving fond farewells to league players they had borrowed from the "enemy" like Wigan and Bradford.

Now comes the question - will they be back? The Welsh league converts have returned for ever (although it wouldn't surprise me if one or two are tempted back) but those who made the temporary journey into the English club scene will find it difficult to combine the two codes in future. It will be November before they are free to link up with union clubs again and since they will be required back at their league clubs by the end of January it will hardly be worth it. Besides, they will be in sore need of a rest, having played almost non-stop for two years.

Some have doubted the value these players have offered in the past three months. Given the resentment between the codes that still exists in some quarters it is not surprising to hear a few quibbles. But I think both sides should have learned lessons.

League fans who've spent their lives convinced that union is a game for poofs and pansies have seen some of their best players prove that it can be just as hard. Union fans who believed that league requires little more than brute force and ignorance ought to have been silenced by such as Gary Connolly and Jason Robinson.

Spending such a short time trying to fit into an alien game in a club scene that is full of upheaval was never going to be easy for the temporary converts. Even former union men like myself have found it difficult to re-adjust. When he came back, Scott Gibbs upset people with the assessment that, compared with league, union was boring. He wasn't being rude, and I am sure it had got a lot less boring for him since, but I knew what he meant.

The union game here is improving all the time but it does have dull moments, especially for the backs. You can often walk off after a match totally frustrated because you haven't made a contribution. You are dependent on others to get the ball for you. Guaranteed possession in league means that you are more in charge of your own destiny. You rarely come off a league pitch feeling you've been denied a chance to be influential. That's what can often make it a more enjoyable game to play.

At its best, union is a fantastic spectacle but it is harder than league to get used to because the laws are so complex, the stoppages are so frequent and often inexplicable and the four extra players make it more crowded than you would imagine.

Added to all that, the training sessions can be tedious compared to league. Union is still new to professionalism and some clubs need to cut down on what I call the peripheral bullshit. I can only go on what I've heard in the game but sessions can be far too long. Some clubs have got more coaches than the National Bus Company and they all want their say. Much of the session is to do with fitness but if you can't keep yourself fit you shouldn't be a pro.

Union has always been heavily into bonding and togetherness and this is great up to point. But training should be about developing tactics and skills and should be as short as possible. Spending too long together in training can be counter- productive mentally and I believe that league sessions benefit players by being sharper and more to the point.

But union is still new to it all and by the end of the year rugby players of both codes will have gathered more evidence on which they might prefer. As usual, money will be the big temptation - but I'll be interested to see which game eventually offers more attraction to the modern pro.