Having been born and bred in the South, specifically Essex I’m probably not the most obvious candidate for having a passion for that ‘other’ code; Rugby League. Giving away my age a little I can remember sitting with my Dad on a Saturday afternoon watching league, with Edddie Waring and his ‘up and unders’ a plenty. My real passion however started with the advent of Superleague; an invite to Charlton to watch London Broncos play St Helens had me hooked! It’s pretty tough being a Broncos fan, but the odd amazing win such as the one against Leeds Rhinos make it all worthwhile. As and when I find myself in the North I try to watch as many league games as I can, 5 in 4 days over a weekend last year. It’s a huge source of frustration to me that we can’t seem to get more people watching this great game; ‘it’s boring’ ‘it’s not as good as Union’ ‘I don’t like it’ are words I hear time and again from sports fans who’ve never watched the game live. For me it’s a no brainer, I get to watch rugby all year round, and the trick for fellow union fans? The 2 codes are different games albeit played with the same shape ball; appreciate the different subtleties of both and like me you’re never without rugby!
Clearly the powers that be in international rugby union have seen the benefits of the men of league coming into the coaching set up with some very high profile ex-players taking key roles. Phil Larder, Joe Lydon, Shaun Edwards, Andy Farrell and Les Kiss to name a few. Another ex-league player turned union coach Mike Ford had me heading down to Bath having agreed to give me some of his time. Having had to rearrange our original date we agreed on August 18th. Imagine my, how can I put this? Excitement! When I realised that the 18th coincided with a visit to the stunning training headquarters of Bath by the Wigan Warriors. It would have been rude not to take the opportunity to see the 2 teams interact. I had read a little about Farleigh House, home to Bath Rugby but nothing quite prepared me for the setting and the buildings! I’d be surprised if there’s another facility to match it in the country.
Now I am trying to be a serious journalist type In The Loose person but when confronted with Wigan waiting for Bath to appear I have to confess I was finding it hard not to jump and down. I suspect the huge smile on my face gave away the fact that I’m a fan first a writer second. You can imagine that when the Bath boys appeared I felt as if I’d died and gone to heaven! The one thing that struck me was how much bigger the Bath players were than the Wigan men. I was able to chat to various players as well as the coaches, the Bath coaches explained that they aim for around 127kg for their biggest players whereas the league players would weigh in at around 113kg. There also seemed to be twice as many Bath players as there were Wigan, but I imagine that had something to do with the fact they were on home territory. After both sets of players had warmed up Mike Ford set them up with an attacking line moving up on a double defensive line. The defensive lines were mixed the attacking from one or other of the teams on the whole. My opinion of the 2 games is that league is the faster flowing of the 2 and I’d say that the Bath defence struggled to cope with the speed of the passing as well as the agility of the Wigan players. What was clear from the photos I took is that both sets of players were keen to learn from the other code and both were respectful of the skills of the men facing them.
After the joint session watched by Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree; the two sets of players split into their respective teams. With rugby union being the more technical of the 2 games the Bath players split into their separate disciplines; whereas the majority of the Wigan squad trained together. My leanings towards league took over at this point and I watched Shaun Wane put his players through their paces. He concentrated on tackling techniques showing exactly how a 2 man tackle should be executed, with one man taking control of the ball carrying arm, the other going low. I can’t count the number of times I’ve yelled ‘man and ball’ when I’ve watched my teams this season! Next on the agenda was what looked like wrestling; one on one I’d say that was exactly what was happening; I wonder how many league clubs receive specific training in wrestling from experts? A question for next year maybe? What was interesting was that once the Bath players had finished their session a fair few of them came over and watched Wigan train. I’d say that Shaun Wane certainly intended for his squad to get a good working out as he finished off with what looked like multi bleep tests. Pretty tough after a full afternoon session!
I was able to catch up with Dan Sarginson and Tony Clubb at the end of the session, it was good to see them settled and happy, it’s always great to see London ‘ex-pats’ thriving in one of the top clubs. Gavin Henson was one of the Bath players I spoke to; he looked very fit; for me he’s been one of the most talented Welsh players in recent years; I hope he finds his touch and does well this season. Maybe not against a team from North London though! With one of the highest profile England rugby league players due to arrive at Bath in October; Sam Burgess; it was very interesting to see the 2 codes collide. Sam is a hugely successful league player; I suspect he’s gone to the right club to make a union player of him. Mike Ford wouldn’t be drawn on where he’s likely to be positioned; my guess would be in the Centres. The job of a forward in rugby union is a technical one, with a need to go seeking the ball as well as the prospect of contested scrums and lineouts. I’d be very surprised if a man, even one as talented as Sam Burgess, who hasn’t played the game could pick up the skills needed to be in the Back Row; the other most likely spot. But, all will become plain in October/November. My afternoon couldn’t have been a better one, and I managed to keep the jumping up and down in my head, phew!