On a rugby tour of New Zealand some years ago, a friend of mine returned to his hotel room in Auckland to find two chambermaids making his bed. From the bathroom, he could overhear their conversation. There was none of the customary exchange of minutiae, no talk of boyfriends, pop music or soap operas. Instead, they were engaged in an animated discussion about the relative merits of the two scrum-halves vying for a place in the All Blacks side. One had a better pass, but the other was more mobile. It was a tough call, they agreed, before fluffing the pillows and departing, leaving no doubt that this was a country where the game was somewhat more than a game.
A touching scene at the New Zealanders’ training camp in Pretoria during the Rugby World Cup offered further evidence. Crowds of Kiwi supporters had gathered to watch a practice session and, on the sideline, stood a four-year-old boy and his mother. The child picked up a rugby ball and disappeared to a neighbouring pitch. When he returned, his mother asked: ‘Did you play rugby?’ The boy nodded. She followed this up with the enquiry that was entirely natural to her. ‘Did you win?’
Rugby Union is not the most democratic of games, as this World Cup has vividly demonstrated. Soccer has days when the world hierarchy is reversed, when Cameroon beat Argentina or Algeria defeat Germany. But rugby, with its reliance on physical attributes, has no such capacity to shock. Japan may shore up their side with the odd Tongan or Fijian but they will never compete on equal terms with the All Blacks; the Ivory Coast would probably struggle to beat an Australian side with their legs tied together. Nevertheless, when two teams are of roughly equivalent standing, victory will invariably go to the one which wants it more. That is why New Zealand almost always win at rugby and why, as the sun disappeared behind the jagged peaks of the Cape on that traumatic Sunday afternoon, Englishmen were left disoriented and bewildered.
Even Jack Rowell, the stoic manager of the England team, had his senses scattered in the wake of the All Blacks’ crushing victory in the World Cup semi-final. There were no tears or hard-luck stories as there had been when England’s footballers were beaten by Germany at the same stage of Italia ’90; Rowell was lost in awe for opponents who, when they took a 35-3 lead early in the second half, had turned it in every sense into a day of reckoning. What had made the All Blacks such a brutally effective force? Rowell was asked. His answer was remarkable, and some may say treacherous. ‘They play like a Rugby League side,’ he explained.
If the watching millions at home had scarcely believed what they had seen for the preceding 80 minutes, this comment must have caused a universal double-take. Hold on a minute. Here’s the man who stands at the summit of Rugby Union peering enviously at the lusher terrain of a code traditionally despised by the English establishment. If Rowell had admitted to cross-dressing, it would have been only slightly more surprising.
What Rowell’s assessment represented was an acknowledgment, however grudging, of something everyone lucky enough to have been born in the North of England has always believed: that Rugby League is intrinsically the better of the two codes. The handling is more proficient, the players are faster and fitter, the tackling is stronger, and just by dint of having 26 men on the field instead of 30, the play tends to be more open, encouraging the sort of vibrant attacking style with which the All Blacks demolished England. There is an almost subterranean quality to much of the action in Union and, given the raft of technical offences that can be committed when the ball is hidden under a pile of bodies, matches can often descend into little more than a fusillade of penalty kicks. True, the standard of place-kicking at the World Cup has been quite outstanding-but it’s no spectacle. And it is also difficult for a League man to be swept along by the acclaim for Jonah Lomu, the giant All Black wing who cut a swathe through England with the certainty of a combine harvester. He has a commanding physical presence and speed to burn, but he may not be quite such a phenomenon in an arena where players’ livelihoods depend on halting him in his tracks.
After this World Cup, it is generally recognised that the lines between the two rugby codes will become increasingly blurred. Exactly a century ago the miners and factory workers of the North of England opened up the divide by demanding compensation for loss of earnings and establishing a breakaway part-time professional game – though I should explain what ‘professional’ means in this context. Rugby League players do not fit in the stereotype of modern full-time sportsmen: they do not as a rule drive Mercedes convertibles, escort former topless models to fashionable nightspots and live in mock-Tudor homes. They are paid by their clubs to turn up for training two or three nights a week and get bonuses based on results. In addition to this they have full-time day jobs; most are employed in local industries and because they mix on an everyday basis with their public, they are not encouraged to betray their roots. During the miners’ strike, those players who were blacklegs were jeered by their own supporters.
Rugby Union, by contrast, has made a sacrament of its amateur status, despite revelations of under-the-counter payments and scandals over perks and bungs. Even though the idea of the true-blue amateur playing at international level now exists only in the minds of the most hardened committee men, the game’s patrician ruling classes have resisted all pressures to follow athletics, tennis and golf down a path that means players legitimately getting their hands on some of the vast amount of cash generated by their efforts.
However, the differences between the two games go beyond the question of payment. There has always been an element of class struggle in their mutual antipathy. Union has its roots in the middle-class South of England: its players are largely professional men and its administrators products of the days of empire, whereas League, born in the industrial North, is firmly working-class in its basis. Players who crossed the divide in the pursuit of riches – most of whom came from Wales, where Union has a more working-class profile – were ostracised and, in an outrageous abuse of human rights, banned from playing the amateur game again. Attitudes have softened in recent years, but, in Batley and Basingstoke as in Soweto and Stellenbosch, a generation must pass before apartheid is struck from people’s hearts as well as the statute book.
Nevertheless, the International Rugby Board – the world governing body of Rugby Union – is to meet in Paris this month, and high on the agenda is a revision of the amateur regulations. The Board may stop short of sanctioning pay-for-play, but even a body of men seemingly impervious to the shifts of the modern world now recognise the need for change. Yet while the players are agitating with growing vehemence for their share in the jackpot, and while the World Cup has demonstrated the need to keep the best players in Union by offering more tangible rewards, it is pressure from an altogether more powerful source that may demolish the edifice. This process has begun with Rupert Murdoch’s $550 million deal for Southern Hemisphere Test rights.
Rugby League has already succumbed to temptation, having sold the jerseys to Murdoch for £78 million in April. Unlike the deal which took Premier League football onto the Sky satellite channel, or the purchase of the major American football games by Murdoch’s Fox TV, the contract with Rugby League involved upsetting the entire structure of the game. The butchers, bakers and bookmakers who run the sport, dizzied by negotiating with one of the world’s most powerful men via a video link with America, fell over themselves in the rush to pocket the cash. A Super League was born; clubs would have to be merged; the season would change to the summer and, of course, it would be available only on satellite TV. A sport more familiar with muck than brass would receive an unprecedented financial injection, which would at least enable it to upgrade the dilapidated grounds that in many cases have received little more than a coat of paint since the relief of Mafeking. The world’s best players from either code could be tempted into the new Super League with greater financial inducements. The spectators would be more comfortable, the players would be better rewarded, and the clubs, most of whom have been living below the breadline for decades, would be more secure.
Trebles all round, you may think. But Murdoch has no reputation for philanthropy. In particular, the proposal that clubs would merge was greeted with a mixture of derision and despair. In Featherstone, a tiny Yorkshire mining town often characterised as a set of traffic lights on the main road between Leeds and Pontefract, they used to attach washing lines from the terraced houses to one of the outside walls of the town’s Rugby League club. There could be no more tangible symbol of the links between a community and its rugby club, and no more vivid expression of the character of the game and its importance in the social fabric of the North of England.
Rugby League has stronger links with the community than almost any other sport in the world and provides a sense of identity for towns that, through the systematic industrial pillage of the Thatcher years, have lost their main reason to exist. Featherstone, with its defunct pit winding gear standing as a sad memorial of a past long gone, is one such town. In the Murdoch master plan, Featherstone Rovers were told that they would be asked to merge with their neighbours Castleford and Wake-field to form an identikit ‘super’ club. The three towns are so close that you can cover them with a shirt button on an ordnance survey map, but the rivalries run deep and the idea that their selfhoods could be bought and sold had an arrogance that struck at the heart of supporters’ allegiances. It was this tide of rejection and anger that propelled people on to the streets of Featherstone earlier this year, just as they had marched during the miners’ strike of 1984. As a local writer and arts administrator called Ian Clayton observed, with some prescience, two years earlier: ‘What would Fev be without rugby, or Cas or Leigh or anywhere? Small grey towns that had their day, that were born from coal and died with it, like so many in the North.’
The parochialism of Rugby League is one of its strengths. The idea that its development had been stunted by the adherence to its Northern roots, and that it needed to be thrust as a new product in front of a world-wide television audience, was not likely to be received favourably in the game’s heartland, where, after all, the Luddites did most of their damage. But how many supporters – in any sport – would give up the club they cherish in return for a higher profile of the sport at large? It soon became clear that the plans to combine clubs had to be abandoned. Nevertheless, when the game re-emerges, blinking in the sunlight, next summer, it will have changed for ever. The phoney attempts at re-invention – Bradford Northern, one of the game’s greatest names over the past century, have already decided to become the Bradford Bulls – will be only part of a Murdoch marketing plan that is sure to be at odds with the sport’s heritage and traditional appeal.
In addition, the raising of the slakes and the colossal amount of money soon to be washing around have prompted some of the top League clubs to embrace full-time professionalism. Many players are unhappy about going along this road, which seems certain to lead to the game being further distanced from its roots. The possible benefit is that this may counter the domination of Wigan, the most prosperous club in the League. (Wigan have won the Challenge Cup, the biggest prize on offer, eight years in succession.) The hegemony of this one club, which had the resources to go full-time professional some years ago, is regarded as a serious fault in the present structure, yet it is naive to imagine that the Super League – which is specifically designed to ensure that the rich get richer – will correct this imbalance. further-more, all this is another example of sport being packaged for viewers rather than spectators. Sky have won widespread praise for their coverage of Rugby League so far – they have certainly taken presentation on from the days when the BBC, with the execrable Eddie Waring at the microphone, portrayed the sport as as a muddy form of morris dancing – but the fact that the Super League is to be available only to those who have a satellite dish adds the element of holding-to-ransom that is the key to Murdoch’s strategy.
The truly pernicious aspect of the deal is that, for the first time, the destiny of a game is in the hands of one paymaster. It is this development that ought to cause palpitations among the Rugby Union authorities. One of the motivations for Murdoch’s purchase of Rugby League is its suitability for the Australian market, where he is prosecuting an unholy war with Kerry Packer. If sport is to become the toy of a media mogul, then Rugby Union has plenty of bells and whistles. It is a global game with high exposure, and is particularly attractive as a property in markets in the Southern Hemisphere, where there are satellite systems to be sold and cables to be laid. So what’s to stop Murdoch or Packer, or Berlusconi or even Tony O’Reilly, marching in, brandishing chequebooks, buying up the best players and burning the rule book? The IRB is surely aware of the infidels gathering at their gates and will probably conclude that it is unrealistic to continue to stand in defiance of market forces. They must pay the players.
Rugby Union has come a long way in a short time. In 1986, the English Union was run by retired colonels and had an ex-directory number; today they have a marketing department, sponsorship agents to negotiate huge TV deals, a state-of-the-art stadium at Twickenham, and are willing to embrace all the attendant corruptions of the modern world. Unless they take the final step and abandon the principle they hold most dear, matters will be taken out of their hands. And then there is a danger of the whole thing careering out of control. The incentive to merge the two codes will be irresistible, yet maybe that’s no bad thing. A series between Great Britain’s Rugby League team and the All Blacks under hybrid rules would not only put bums on seats and dishes on gable ends but could go some way to settling the debate about the relative merits of the two codes.
In the not too distant past, such a thought would have been considered fantastic. But then so was the idea that the Berlin Wall would be demolished or that apartheid in South Africa would collapse. The Hundred Years War between Rugby Union and League is admittedly more intractable, but a tough peace may now be on the horizon.