So, Super League kicked off last night with a difficult game for new boys Celtic Crusaders, right on the eve of the Welsh Rugby Union side beginning the defence of their Six Nations crown. Naturally this led to a lot of discussion about the relative positions on the two codes in the Principality. One person to speak up on the matter was Welsh Union coach Warren Gatland, who sounded positively ominous in his take on the Crusaders and their impact on Rugby Union in Wales:
Gatland, Wales’ Grand Slam winning rugby union coach, said: “There’s so much money in the union game that their players may be targeted in the future. “If the Crusaders are successful, their challenge is to stop our union teams picking off some of their players.”
There’s something about these comments which just strikes me as very… mafioso. As well as being condescending it comes across almost like a threat, like how it would be a shame if anything happened to your wife and kids whilst you were at work. His comments seem to undermine the purpose of the Crusaders (to develop the strength of League in Wales) which seems remarkably pointless given that no-one thinks that League will overtake Union in Wales any time soon (or indeed ever). At the very least it comes across that Gatland wants to unzip flies and see who’s got the bigger one (metaphorically). It strikes me as a little reactionary and downright odd.
Gatland is sort of right in that Welsh players are going to be more susceptible to a cross-code switch simply because Rugby Union is far more ingrained into the Welsh cultural psyche than it is for any of the other Home Nations. Whilst most English-born Leagues players probably never even gave a thought to the Union side when growing, it’s unlikely that many of the players coming through the Welsh system won’t have thought of putting on the red jersey of the Welsh Union side.
But there are flaws in Gatland’s musings. Firstly, it should be fairly obvious by now that spending lots of money on Rugby League players is not a way to guarantee victory for a Rugby Union side (England got real lucky with Jason Robinson). Far too many League players in recent seasons have gone over to Union, tried it for a bit, seem that it wasn’t for them and come back to League in a worse position than when they left. Secondly, this plan relies on the Welsh regions being awash with cash, but they’re clearly not. In fact, that’s the reason the Celtic Crusaders were founded in the first place: because the WRU couldn’t afford to keep Leighton Samuel’s region going, so he defected codes. Now granted the sponsorship opportunities would almost certainly be higher in Union, but I really don’t think that blowing money on risky propositions is a clever thing to be doing in these financially precarious times. To be honest this is probably a moot point for a few years anyway, because it’s going to take a while for the Crusaders’ development work to take effect.