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…on why rugby union teams will keep going across the divide

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Chris Ashton

"You can try and stop me but the money's too good"

Increasingly rugby teams here and across the English Channel are focusing on getting quality rugby footballers to their club, irrespective of the code they play. Northampton have focused on Wigan’s fullback, Chris Ashton. Ashton, just shy of his 20th birthday, has agreed sign for the Saints at the end of the season, where he joins fellow league convert Stephen Myler, who joined last year. They aren’t alone in signing prospects rather than fully-formed players, with Gloucester signing Karl Pryce. Chev Walker, more of an established player with Super League and World Club Challenge titles under his belt, is also at Bath.

Previously, English teams have signed stars from the 13-man code. Martin Offiah returned to union to play for Wasps in 2001 before retiring and the major success story has been Jason Robinson, who is the first person to have lifted Super League and Premiership trophies and a key member of the England team. However, Andy Farrell’s ill-advised RFU-sponsored sojourn to the game has obviously led to a reassessment of the signing of rugby league players. Unlucky with injuries since his arrival, Farrell had a great deal many miles on the clock than Robinson and arguments have broken out between the RFU and Farrell’s club as to whether Farrell is too old to learn the forwards game. Sarries prefer Farrell at number six, the RFU see him as a 12. Given the investment the RFU have made, it seems as though they have won the day.

Wakefield coach John Kear has pointed out that the money is unbelievable. Ashton will be pulling down far in excess of what he’d earn in Super League. However, top British clubs can’t criticise, they’re in a glass house on this one, as they took the best rugby league players from around the world for decades without remorse. When the Aussies and Kiwis no longer came, they raided Wales. Unfortunately now, the demographics and geography of the UK mean that, more than ever, rugby league cannot compete for money and press exposure.

Chris Ashton himself is a decent prospect. He was excellent last season, though he has question marks over his defensive capabilities, certainly under the high ball, and his temperament. Wigan clearly considered him the long-term successor to Kris Radlinski, given they’d handed him Radlinski’s number 1 shirt for the Super League XII season. He’s not Jason Robinson, well certainly not yet, but it seems a solid signing for the Franklin’s Gardens-based outfit and a potential bright spot in an otherwise depressing season.

However, the main thing this exposes for me is how dreadful rugby union’s recruiting is. Youth players seem to get lost in the shuffle because clubs at all levels want to hold onto their best players. Whilst Ireland, Wales and New Zealand have systems which actively promote players through the system, England does not. For me, this is another reason why local clubs need to be stakeholders in bigger, more regionally-known clubs so that the cream rises to the top. It shouldn’t be about dumb luck or relationships, it should be about harnessing our rugby resources so that Northampton don’t need to sign Chris Ashton. Until then, Super League teams will have to keep a short lead on their best youngsters because ruby union will keep coming back for their young players whether Ashton, or Pryce or Myler for that matter, is a success or not.

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Written by Michael Farrow

March 22, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Posted in Rugby League, Rugby Union

Tagged with ,

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