Leagues Apart

With the IRFU's All-Ireland League barely alive, attempts by Rugby League to foster a relationship here have met with a frosty reception from Landsdown Road. Brendan O'Brien investigates.

IT'S one hundred and nine years since the rugby-loving working-class of Yorkshire and Lancashire said their good-byes to the union game and formed their own Northern Rugby Football Union, thus giving birth to the sister code of Rugby League.

As momentous occasions go in the oval ball game, it still stands second only to the day in 1823 when William Webb Ellis, "with fine disregard for the rules of football (soccer) as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game".

Actually, Ireland's part in Webb Ellis' story or his legend anyway - is an important one. It's said that William's father first saw a variation of the game of 'caid' being played while stationed here with the Dragoons as a young man. The 'Great Split' of 1895, on the other hand, didn't raise many eyebrows on this side of the Irish Sea and over a century later the league code is still a relative stranger to the land that spawned Gibson, Willie John and Brian O'Driscoll.

All that may soon change. A new and improved All-Ireland league based on a provincial structure is being launched this summer and the initial response from teams looking to participate has been encouraging. The decision to have the four 'home' nations play in the 2008 World Cup in Australia as separate entities rather than one Great Britain and Ireland selection is another boost to a game grappling for a foothold.

With virtually no rugby league culture in a sports-mad country already saturated with field sports, both native and foreign, the task is a big one, but far from impossible.

"There's three points to all this," says Patrick Harkins who is instrumental in setting up the new League Conference. "Firstly, field sports are dominant in Ireland. GAA is first, then soccer, then rugby. Union is not a summer game. The Eircom League is now played in summer but amateur competitions aren't and the GAA focus during the summer is on counties not clubs, so the field is very much open in summer for league, which is a summer game.

"Secondly, I was brought up in Huddersfield of Irish parents and there is a huge Irish diaspora in England and around the world involved in rugby league who are involved on and off the pitch. These people are always looking for us to come and play them and for them to come and play us. There is a huge hidden population there that can be ignited.

"Thirdly, rugby union's provincial focus has been to the detriment of the clubs. Club membership has gone through the floor and that's bad for us because we rely on rugby union to be strengthened at ground level if we are to succeed. It's a symbiotic relationship."

That last point may have some readers rubbing their eyes, but it is a fact that, unlike the dark days when league and union men eyed each other like Yankees and Rebels, the two codes have never had a stronger working relationship across the world. The IRFU have been slower than most to catch on, however.

Perhaps it's understandable that 62 Lansdowne Road isn't overjoyed at the sight of its long distant sibling sniffing around its turf. And the RLI were soon made aware of it.

Having concluded a mostly civil meeting of minds in Dublin last November, league officials felt that they had got what they wanted from their bigger brother. The IRFU had started the meeting in defensive mode with one official suggesting, half-jokingly, "Why don't we just destroy you?"

Ultimately, the IRFU's concerns appeared to have eased and RLI were under the impression that, while they wouldn't support the new summer league, they wouldn't stand in the way of any club who wished to participate.

That was until last month when a letter sent by Philip Browne was brought to RLI chairman Dave Southern's attention. In broad terms, the IRFU chief executive was advising its clubs not to involve themselves with rugby league. This was justified by saying RLI was affiliated to a British organisation (BARLA), it's insurance cover for players was inadequate and that IRFU players should be allowed a full off-season.

Unsurprisingly, RLI hit back. It was pointed out to the IRFU that RLI was not affiliated to any British organisation, but was a fully fledged member of the RL International Federation since 2000. As for the delicate matter of insurance, RLI pointed out that there's was the same policy used by the League Conference in England, which caters for 20,000 registered players. As for the off-season?

"Players will be playing ten games during the summer, that's all," says RLI chairman Southern.

"I doubt they're telling people not to play golf or soccer or hockey over the summer as well. If they were advising against playing all these games as well I could understand it, if not agree with it, but when it's just us "

As Southern trails off, his exasperation becomes clear. RLI have maintained a conciliatory air throughout the disagreement with the IRFU but can't see their colleagues changing their minds and co-operating over a situation that could benefit union as much as it could league. In England, where a similar Conference to that being envisaged here has been in operation since 1997, there are more and more cases of the two codes shrugging off the mutual distrust that froze relations for so many decades.

"Time has moved on," says Southern. "In England you see more co-operation than ever before between league and union. Union teams like Leeds and Coventry, who have been in operation since 1874, are running summer [rugby league] league competitions and 75% of the English Conference's teams have strong union backgrounds.

"Since 1995 union and league have adopted a more positive approach to each other. At the top level union and league are professional, but we're an amateur-based organisation. Have the IRFU anything to worry about from us? Absolutely not. We have no interest in winter competition. English rugby league took the decision to switch to summer competition in the late-90s and we've followed suit. We find it suits a more attractive game in summer. It's like with any change people will resist what they don't know. We're thinking a little outside the box and at times people find that hard to deal with."

Southern's vested interest don't make his views any less valid. Chris O'Callaghan is director of rugby at Aberavon RFC in Wales where another League Conference is quickly finding its feet. O'Callaghan has other strings to his bow too board member of Wales Rugby League and assistant coach to the Welsh Rugby League team among them.

"I'm paid on a full-time basis by a rugby union club but act 'pro bono' for rugby league in Wales," O'Callaghan explains. "The reason I do this is because I am a devotee to the 13-man code, recognising the qualities and ideas that it brings to Rugby Union.

"In the past, the Welsh Rugby Union has had no reason to love rugby league. More than any other country; Wales over the last five generations, has lost many of its best players to Rugby League. Some of these were influential and often irreplaceable in the era in which they played.

"For years now rugby union has stolen ideas, strategies, players and coaches from rugby league, where once they stole them from us. It is now fair to say that if rugby league didn't exist as a sport, then we in rugby union would have to invent it," O'Callaghan believes.

Despite his empathy with league though, O'Callaghan could not get away with supporting league at his employer's expense if it did not make sense financially. Aberavon is a limited entity with a core business, which is the playing and selling of rugby union football. As this business only exists for three-quarters of a calendar year, rugby league compliments it perfectly and keeps the doors open for a full 12 months every year.

Aberavon RFC with its sister club Aberavon Green Stars RFC sponsored the foundation and the continuance of the Aberavon Fighting Irish RLFC. This entity has been both successful on the playing side, attracting players for both Aberavon RFC and The Green Stars, whilst financially, some of the games attracted crowds of over 1,000 spectators, generating much needed income from bar and gate receipts.

Most remarkably is the fact that the Fighting Irish attracted over 420 kids (and their parents) in the 8-18 age bracket, to one rugby league club. This is all the more remarkable because Welsh rugby is fiercely parochial. In a 10-mile radius around Aberavon RFC, there are over 30 different rugby union clubs.

"Few people would cross the road to play rugby union for a rival club - unless there were substantial money inducements involved - but they came from miles to join a rugby league club and played for free," O'Callaghan points out. "That story is one that was repeated throughout the Welsh Conference.

"There is no conflict between Union and League they are mutually compatible core businesses and possess a financial synergy which anyone would be hard pressed to replicate with two other sports."

When Dave Southern and RLI talk about their vision for the future of rugby in Ireland, Aberavon's is the model they hold up to the light.

A higher profile example can be found in Yorkshire where the Leeds Tykes and Leeds Rhinos joined forces in 1998 to form Leeds Rugby Limited, the world's first dual code partnership encompassing top class rugby league and rugby union under one roof.

The Aberavon and Leeds examples should be noted by the IRFU and not just dismissed out of hand through fear and prejudice. The AIL is a train-wreck waiting to be derailed (it could even happen as soon as this year).

With the clubs fighting a losing battle against spiralling costs and dwindling attendances, player numbers and incomes, surely it makes sound business sense to at least enter into discussions with their league counterparts to try and maximise its potential.

Yet the IRFU's circular to the clubs last month may have shot a number of holes in RLI's masterplan. An official at one AIL Division One club in Dublin, which was extremely positive about the RLI's blue-print for summer rugby league admitted they were now 'shitting it' since Philip Browne's advice arrived in the post. Clubs simply do not want to anger the Union.

What effect the IRFU intervention will have remains to be seen but RLI are determined that rugby league is here to stay and to prosper. Its critics will point to the 2000 World Cup when the tournament in Britain and Ireland shot across the bows of the public consciousness before fading as quickly again without leaving any appreciable legacy.

By the 2008 competition, Dave Southern and RLI plan to be in a far stronger position on which to root the game into the Irish psyche. The fledgling Conference will be four years young by then and, unlike 2000 when the entire Irish team were drafted in from the British Superleague, the competition in Australia will provide opportunities for men playing the game on home soil to appear for the Irish Wolfhounds.

"For 2008 we'll be looking for maybe a 60-40 spread between Superleague and our own conference," Southern plans. "Having that international outlet, that chance to represent your country is a huge plus. Guys who won't quite reach that level in rugby union will have the opportunity to do it with league. I wouldn't see it as a second best situation either. We're hoping that in time people will see it as being as big an honour to play for Ireland in league as it is in union at the moment maybe even surpass it some day."

THE first step on that road will be taken next month when RLI stage a St Patrick's Day dinner at Huddersfield's historic George Hotel on Saturday, with all proceeds raised going towards the new Conference and the Irish Wolfhounds 'A' team's summer international program.

GB and Ireland winger Brian Carney a Wicklow native is guest of honour, while St Helens' chairman Sean Maguire will lend his support on the evening.

"It's our first real attempt to raise any significant funding and it's serving as the catalyst to bring in the Irish community in the UK and get them involved with what we're trying to do," explains Southern. "A large turnout there is key to developing the Wolfhounds as a brand name that people will recognise and support."