Of rugby unions and leagues

When England beat Australia in the Autumn International Rugby Union match it was the best show from an England side in years and crowned by a try which Chris Ashton scored after running the length of the field past three defenders he made appear, well, at least as unfit as those old time League players, writes Ted Corbett.

Just after World War II, when I was a young lad trying to make my way in any sport and attempting to master them all from cricket to canasta and hockey to handball, a man's social class was defined by the form of Rugby he played.

The posh types were Rugger or Rugby Union types; we Northern working lads settled for Rugby League.

The Rugby Union stars were the ex-university, glamorous, unpaid, carefree men of leisure like the fighter pilots of the war. Rugby League players were, to hear the whispers, the lower orders, only interested in cash. Nothing could have been further from the truth but the myth lasted for a century.

The boundaries were firmly drawn and could only be crossed — as I found to my pleasure — while doing National Service in the Armed Forces.

The Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force did not give a damn. Welcome, they said as you marched on to the parade ground for the first time, and as soon as you have done a day's drill you can play Rugby Union as an amateur and we will forget you once earned a pound or two playing Rugby League.

I never earned a penny from any game apart from Bingo but the mere playing of Rugby League — the 13-a-side version, with help for those who wished to attack — meant you were excluded from the (as we rough Northern lads saw it) snobbish, boring and defensively-minded ranks of Rugby Union.

It is a far better game now since they have changed the rules but the game, designed to give as many schoolboys a game as possible rather than attract spectators, was the easier to play. You could either be fleet of foot, big, strong and nasty; or clever and by-pass the unfit, elderly and inept who made pathetic attempts to stop you.

Or you could just look on it as a good way to work up an appetite for the oceans of beer that waited once the game was finished.

League had begun in the 1890s when the workers wanted repayment of the money they lost every week-end by paying instead of working. With a better leadership they might have won their case but instead the one code of 15-a-side split and years later the division was as distinct as ever.

The best Union players — particularly Welshmen — changed codes for vast sums of money and the knowledge that they could never return to Union. Some were highly successful.

I knew one who broke his leg in two places and was taken off to hospital. Several of us went to visit him that night and asked how he had found League. “It's all right,” he said. “But of course the money is not as good.”

“What,” we exclaimed. “Union players are supposed to be amateurs.”

He was either daft or a magnificent actor. “Being an amateur means finding as much as a week's wages in your boot after every game,” he explained. We sighed as we contemplated the hypocrisy of it all.

The antagonism between the two codes were swept away a few years ago as sport commercialism grew and even the richest Union amateurs thought they ought to earn at their game. Now players switch from Union to League and back again so easily I wonder if they are always aware which game they are playing.

Soon after the codes cut out the antagonism it emerged that the great Union club Bath had had scouts at League practice sessions for years to learn the secrets of attacking play. They ran away with the championship as a result. Hypocrisy? No, commonsense.

The League game has undergone a transformation. I sat with two players a few years ago as we watched a re-run of an old international match.

“Look how their stomachs bulge. They're not fit. You cannot play the modern game carrying so much weight,” they concluded.

Now League players look the fittest of any team men I see week by week. They carry no extra weight and some of them are among the fastest men outside the athletics stadium.

Take the example of Chris Ashton who scored two tries for England against Australia recently. It was the best show from an England side in years and crowned by a try which Ashton scored after running the length of the field past three defenders he made appear, well, at least as unfit as those old time League players.

Ashton is a well-known League name. One Eric Ashton captained England some years after playing alongside me in an Army trial match and both Eric and Chris played for Wigan, the finest modern Rugby League club,

Eventually Chris moved to Northampton but his instinctive decision-making on the field was always based on his League experience. Hard as the coaches tried they could not break him of the habit of expecting a pass when his partner sometimes preferred to go down in a tackle to give the team a chance to regroup.

One evening on the way home from a match he even told his pals he might return to League.

Someone, somewhere had faith in his ability and, quite unexpectedly, he was chosen for England and now there is talk that he might be a star for years to come.

Good luck to him. I tell you, it could never have happened when I was playing.