Rugby union: How the 15-man code tried (and failed) to kill Rugby League

Twitter coverThis article originally appeared in issue 411 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 414 comes out this Friday. To get three issues for just £5 click here…

LEST ANYONE should be labouring under the misconception that recent events in the UAE and Italy are isolated or even unusual, RLW has been asked by readers to nominate its Hall of Shame.

Membership is restricted to countries in which rugby union has tried to stamp out league, but that still gives us far too many to choose from.
So, with apologies to those who have suffered at the hands of sport’s biggest and most active dirty tricks department but have not made the cut, here are the 10 most memorable knives in the back…

FRANCE, 1941
You can’t really look beyond this in the annals of infamy.
The French Rugby Union made common cause with the Vichy collaborators – and through them, Hitler’s Nazis – to close down all league activity and transfer its assets to the FRU.
Not only that, but after the end of the War, they did their best to prevent its reinstatement.

The whole, disgraceful story is brilliantly told in Mike Rylance’s ‘The Forbidden Game’. It explains why some of us still choke on our baguettes when we hear anyone in league express any admiration for the way the French play rugby union. There is a sort of happy ending. A mere ten years after their compulsory absorption, the French won a series in Australia – surely the greatest team achievement in the history of the game.

ITALY, 1964
The Italian Rugby League was founded in 1950 and later that year organised a tour of GB.
They played an international against France the following year and, at their height, had 24 clubs playing Rugby League.
It folded in the 1960s when the Italian Rugby Union threatened all players with life bans.

League had already been established in Morocco for 18 years, largely thanks to the energy of Hussain M’Barki.
A national side appeared in the World Sevens, Nines, Emerging Nations World Cup and Mediterranean Cup.
The Moroccan RU could not do a lot to prevent all that, but they drew a line in the sand for the in-coming tour of the Student Rugby League Pioneers. They managed to get a four-match tour reduced to a single match, by locking the league players out of the municipal stadia.

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VENICE, 1983
The game in Italy never quite laid down and died and in the early 80s it found an articulate advocate in Mario Majone.
He got Great Britain and France to play in one of the world’s most magical cities in 1982. The next step was meant to be a high-profile international Sevens the following year, but it was cancelled at

Veniceshort notice, with the city authorities bowing to union pressure to make the pitches unavailable. Two British clubs, Oulton Rangers and Hemel Stags, made the trip regardless and played each other in an exhibition match as part of the annual Pea Festival at Mestre on the mainland.
I achieved the rare feat of playing for both sides, by being free-transferred at half-time.
Not a format for ageing props full of peas.

SERBIA, 1964
Back in 1953, in the days when Greater Yugoslavia was still a viable state, the French brought Rugby League to Serbia.
The visit of a Student side and a Provence Selection for a game in Belgrade stirred enough interest for the establishment of a Serbian League.
The trouble was that in Bosnia, they played rugby union and in 1964, after lobbying from that code, the national sports authorities ordered the Serbs to amalgamate.
That wasn’t the end of it, by any means, but it took Serbian Rugby League almost 40 years to rise again. Today, their domestic game continues to go from strength to strength, with Dorcol winning the Serbian Rugby League Federation Cup for an eleventh consecutive time
last month. It makes you wonder where they could and would be now if they hadn’t been so rudely interrupted.

Given the hand-in-hand relationship between the SARU and the apartheid regime, either code of rugby is a hard sell to the majority population of South Africa.
The closest league has ever got to making a breakthrough was in the late 50s and early 60s, starting with England and France playing exhibition matches in 1957 and ending with a tour by Wakefield Trinity in 1962.
The game did itself no good by having two rival leagues (not unlike the USA recently) which made it even harder than it would have been to hold together in the face of implacable union hostility.
I saw at first-hand in the 90s, though, the way they stole ideas and initiative from us.
The tiny, impoverished league set-up would go to places like Alexandra and coach kids. At the end, the union guys would arrive with t-shirts for the press pictures.

WALES, 1895-1995
When it came to Wales, the union authorities adopted a different approach, which amounted to turning a blind eye to ‘shamateurism’.
Everyone knew that Welsh clubs were paying players long before the Northern Union came on the scene.
It was not a case of ‘going north’ from Wales, but of ‘coming north’ from the
West Country.
Any rigorous interpretation of the rules on amateurism would have almost certainly driven the leading Welsh clubs into the waiting arms of the NU.
So, with a nod and a wink, they were given tacit permission to carry on as before — and they did so for very nearly 100 years, until the advent of open professionalism.
For all their posturing to insist that they were occupying the moral high ground, there were plenty of devious deeds in The Valleys.
Players who had crossed the rugby divide were chucked out of clubhouses, scouts from the North were chased out of town — and all this while money from the turnstiles or car parks was going into selected boots.

JAPAN, 1994
With its large pool of players and all its potential sponsors, Japan has been the Promised Land of the Rising Sun for rugby union for decades.
The trouble is that they would be better suited physically to playing league, but that is one thing that the RU has always been determined will not happen.
Rugby League has been played in Japan since 1993.
The barriers it has encountered are typified by the threats of life bans for players who took part in the 1994 Student World Cup.
Japan brought a weakened squad to England for the tournament.

Mention of the student game brings us to the cause célèbre that was Ady Spencer.
It created national controversy and led to questions in parliament when the Rugby Union banned him from playing in their Varsity match, because he had played league — as an amateur — for the London Crusaders.
It was an own-goal for the union authorities, exposing their archaic practices to many who had previously been sceptical about whether league had anything to complain about.
The Warrington-born utility back went on to have a very decent professional career with the London Broncos.


At last, the Holy Grail! The UAE RU makes the thrilling discovery that you can actually have someone thrown in jail for organising a Rugby League competition.
The president of the rival RL body, Sol Mokdad, found himself incarcerated when the RU alleged that his use of the word ‘rugby’ amounted to fraud. We await further developments on that one, but it shows that 120 years after The Big Split, one side still has an active dirty tricks department. None of it is the fault of lads who just like to play rugby union, although if I were one of them I might have died of embarrassment by now.