Leading Article: A rugby lesson

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The Independent Online
The opportunity to compare directly the strengths of two cultures comes along rarely. The game of rugby has embarked upon just such an experiment. The likely result: rugby union, the 15-a-side game which is turning professional, has a lot of stock-taking to do.

On Wednesday night, Bath, Britain's leading union club, were whipped by Wigan, the pre-eminent exponents of rugby league. True, Wigan had an advantage: they were playing under league rules. But that excuse for Bath's inferiority will not last long. On Saturday, Wigan are expected to carry off the crown at the Middlesex Sevens, the carnival celebration to end union's season. The following weekend, the Lancastrians will be back at Twickenham again, to take on Bath at a full-scale game of union. Don't bet on Wigan losing.

These games will measure how far British rugby union has to go before it becomes a fully-fledged professional sport. Likely answer: a very long way indeed. Wigan's players are fitter, more flexible, more skilful, better- disciplined and cleverer than their union counterparts. They think harder and more analytically about each ingredient of their game to work out how to win. As a result, they produce thrilling, entertaining, running rugby. Wigan's win was not just the victory of a team, but the triumph of an approach to a sport.

The financial feeding frenzy that is accompanying the professionalisation of rugby union completely misses the point: that too often it is still a thoroughly dull game - witness the Pilkington Cup final last weekend, which Leicester attempted to win by repeatedly infringing the laws.

If investors in rugby union think that they will make money from this kind of second-rate entertainment, they should think again. Once more, look at Wigan's lesson. Despite years of success and an influx of television money, the most successful rugby league club in modern history last weekend attracted a crowd of just 10,000 and is having to cut costs with gusto. That, too, will almost certainly be part of the future awaiting rugby union.