Hard. Honest. Beautiful

Rugby league was forged on the anvil of Victorian snobbery. It grew out of social and regional division, and the certainty that Twickers is the home of treachery. It's Cup Final day, and what's changed? Everything and nowt, says Colin Welland

Colin Welland
Friday 30 April 1999 23:02

The young Leeds winger was 18 and had just been selected to play for England in the last World Cup, out of the blue. His eyes shone with the excitement of it all. "Do your Mum and Dad know yet?" asked the TV man. "No," the young man smiled, "they're at work. But I rang me Nana - she'll tell them."

I could have hugged him. In that couple of seconds of uncomplicated, totally up-front reaction before the television millions, this young man had encapsulated all that I love and admire about his great game. It would never have crossed his mind that he was now a celebrity, or that the demands of the media might require him to adopt a more sophisticated persona. He'd rung his Nana. That's what he called her: Nana - so what's the big deal?

Rugby league is like that. I don't want to be folksy about it but it really is. How could it be otherwise, given its roots, and the place it came from?

When that clump of Northern clubs broke away from the rugby football union a century ago in 1896, it wasn't just a schism within a game, it was a social revolution.

The north, with its raw industrial power base, was beginning to realise its potential. The Labour Party was being conceived. Trade unions were flexing their muscles. Manchester and Liverpool were among the world's most powerful cities. So when that great string of rugby clubs straddling the Lancashire/Yorkshire border discovered that, out of sheer necessity, their players were demanding compensation for lost Saturday wages, they presented their problems to Twickenham. And believe me, they made a substantial lobby. Of the Lions who toured Australia in the early 1890s, 80 per cent were from these northern clubs. If they'd had any common sense at all, the union hierarchy would have realised the value of the Wigans of the rugby world and sought at least to meet them half-way.

But even to this day common sense is a rare commodity down Twickers way. And the notorious telegram was dispatched: "If they can't afford to play, they shouldn't play." The northern union was formed in an atmosphere of acrimony that has not diminished over the length of the century.

Purple with indignation, the Rugby Football Union set about destroying any ambitions this fledgling association of working-class upstarts might have had. A campaign of attrition was launched against it, almost Stalinist in its attention to detail. I was brought up at my grandfather's knee on tales of the hypocrisy and downright vindictiveness of one against the other. And as I grew older, the evidence for it was plain to see in the very fabric of our small Lancashire community.

Because union remained intrinsically an establishment game - "the Tory Party at play", my Dad called it - its influence pervaded all aspects of our social life, even our education system. Those kids who went to grammar schools played union; secondary modern children played league. The perniciously divisive 11-plus not only cleft our town in two socially but on the rugby field as well.

The rugby union club was to become the stomping ground for the professional classes - the teachers, the dentists, the solicitors and so on - while the "roughy 'eads", the so-called factory fodder, were to flock to the local amateur rugby league. At least, that was the plan. However, boys will be boys.

Surrounded as we were by great league sides - Wigan, Warrington, St Helens and Widnes - how could we fail to fall under their spell? Not that the hierarchy didn't attempt to stop us. Wade Deakon Grammar School Widnes, for instance, tried to forbid their pupils from attending league matches, not recognising the fact that the success of their union side was in no small measure due to the input of Widnes' professional league players.

We schoolboy fanatics revelled in the diversity of it all, playing union for the school on Saturday mornings, watching the pros in the afternoon and, more often than not, turning out for the league amateurs the following morning. Although I wore Bleddyn Williams boots, it was the league stars who were my heroes, the speedy, side-stepping, dextrous, uncompromising athletes who strode the arenas of Wilderspool and Central Park. We were rugby hybrids - a state which we carried into our adult lives. The town union club, governed as it was by Twickenham hypocrisy but peopled by unbiased realists, largely chose to go its own way. If a lad tried league and failed, fair enough, he was taken back, no questions asked. Those who succeeded never asked to return anyway, but were always welcomed socially, a policy totally opposed to the apartheid practised by the rugby football union.

A dear friend of mine, Harry Jepson - who is now in his eighties but still making sprightly contributions to the league administration - suffered appalling treatment when, as a Leeds director, he had occasion to step into union land. You couldn't meet a more honest, decent and distinguished bloke; an ex-headmaster in Hunslet who remembers a young Peter O'Toole turning out for his school; a man who speaks fluent French and is a credit to his background and his game.

"I fought for five years to keep this country free," he says, "only to be treated like a leper."

He will never forgive them, despite the so-called entente cordiale that exists between rugby league and rugby union today.

And his experience was, I'm afraid to say, commonplace. Distinguished Welsh players, such as David Watkins and Billy Boston, were ostracised on returning home and faced eviction from the club they once represented simply because they'd chosen subsequently to play professionally.

The length to which this bigotry extended

sometimes beggars belief. Ady Spencer, now a London Bronco, faced a ban after playing in a Varsity game because he'd admitted to having had an unpaid trial with a league team. Ridiculous though it may seem, even I came up against this political incorrectness. As a dad, I helped coach Richmond's mini-rugby union squad. I was an honorary director of Fulham Rugby League Club at the time. On these grounds, some bonehead on the committee objected to my presence, perhaps feeling his offspring might catch something. In my case, common sense did prevail and I survived. It was on discovering the total ignorance with which league was viewed from the south - with otherwise intelligent people perceiving it as a depository for mercenary-minded union players - that I became an evangelist for the game; even after having played union all my life.

Over the years, rugby league created its own culture, which is endemic to its own communities and which springs from the priorities and values of northern working-class life. As I said at the outset, it remains scrupulously honest, demanding total discipline and absolute commitment. It denies access to poseurs, ridicules the phoney and has nothing but contempt for on-field deceit, yet within these confines it has developed its own robust sense of humour. Stories abound about the special relationship between referees and players.

The great, late Aussie Test forward Arthur Clues, 50 years in Leeds, told the tale of his first match at Halifax. At the first scrum, a West Riding whiz bang planted itself on his Antipodean hooter, as if to welcome him to England. As he tottered after the play, struggling to define his whereabouts, the little hunch-backed referee Mr J Thorpe (nobody ever learned their Christian names) jogged up to him. "I saw what happened, Arthur," he said. "You've one free." Amazed but delighted, Clues bided his time. As the final whistle approached, a scrum formed. He sized up his assailant and laid him cold. The crowd exploded, clamouring for his dismissal.

"Cum 'ere!" little Mr Thorpe cried, strutting briskly away. "The little bastard," thought Arthur. "He's conned me."

No such thing. Wagging his finger in his face, the ref declared: "The crowd think I'm bollocking you, but I'm not. He bloody deserved it. Now get on with the game!"

You see, the culture of the game is unique. It's even honest about its dishonesty. If only the same could be said of the RFU. Over the years it has been prepared to bend rules, and distort the idea of justice and fair play in order to scotch the ambitions of its maverick offspring. In France during the last war, the Vichy government banned the game because its working-class clubs were becoming centres of resistance. Only now is Rugby Treize recovering. Back home, faced by a huge influx of pros into the services and fearful of the forming of an army rugby league, Twickenham declared a dispensation allowing professionals to play union. Kind of them.

So what's the state of play today? Where does the great game of rugby league stand in the nation's sporting consciousness? With union turning pro and making a right pig's ear of it, the two codes are leaning towards each other again. Might a reunion be in the air? Don't you believe it. Despite a general emancipation, and a softening of the social divides that have crippled the country for centuries, the games of union and league are still rooted in the social provinces from which they came.

Were you to awaken in the Twickenham car park on international day, you'd be left in no doubt as to the particular stratum of society you're visiting. Here is the middle and upper-middle class at picnic and at play, worshipping at the shrine of their particular identity. Wembley today will throng with those who owe their allegiance to a code formed from that great act of defiance long ago. Yet today there is a difference. A league team from London is competing for the game's greatest prize against a club which rebelled at the very beginning and which has been instrumental in the building of the game's own culture.

I liked to think that the great pioneers of 1896, who shrugged off the shackles of those original and blinkered old farts, would be delighted. Our game is too exciting, too skilful, too honest in endeavour and creed to lie hidden beneath a northern bushel any longer.

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