THE mid-1990s proved a time of massive change for both codes of rugby.
While rugby league was embarking on its shift to summer and the launch of Super League, the 15-man game was making its first steps into the world of professional sport having been declared ‘open’ in 1995.
The fact the decision by rugby union’s powerbrokers came exactly 100 years after the schism between the RFU and the Northern Union perhaps did even more to enhance the significance of such a decision.
Of course, all this really did was lift the hypocrisy of ‘shamateurism’, with anecdotal evidence suggesting payments to players had been rife for years in a sport which held itself up as the last bastion of Corinthian virtues.
But what the open declaration did as well was to free up players to play either code without fear of discrimination or being banned for life by union’s authorites. It also paved the way for two of the top teams from each code to go head-to-head in a battle for superiority.
IT started with a phone call from rugby league players’ agent Alan McColm, who got in touch with the Bath players in a bid to set up a showdown between themselves and Wigan, which would see the pre-eminent powers in each code go up against each other in one game of league and one game of union.
However, there were a few hurdles to be overcome before the so-called ‘Clash of the Codes’ could go ahead – with the union authorities unsurprisingly resistant to any such matches being played.
“Twickenham wouldn’t play ball with them. So myself and David Bradshaw, the marketing guy from Wigan, started putting it together,” recalled Bath president Danny Sacco in an interview with The Rugby Paper.
“I installed phone lines in the Teachers Stand [at Bath’s Recreation Ground], I had my wife and relatives answering the phones and off we went. In those days it was like East meeting West.
“Every time I went to Twickenham the frosty reception was unbelievable. They thought I was evil and were set in their ways and didn’t want to see the game take place”
Not only that, but Bath were told in no uncertain terms that Twickenham would be unavailable for the union match due to their pitch reseeding programme – only for that to suddenly be put back when Cardiff Arms Park offered to host it.
The RFL were hesitant about the idea as well, particularly as the dates for the games would come early in the new Super League season and necessitate Wigan’s game with Sheffield Eagles being moved.
Nevertheless, those hurdles were overcome and the dates were set for the league encounter at Manchester City’s Maine Road on May 8 and the match under union rules at Twickenham on May 25.
IN the run up to the first game, Bath completed a Premiership and Pilkington Cup double, while Wigan’s failure to make the Challenge Cup final for the first time since 1987 saw them enjoy a week off before thumping Paris Saint-Germain 76-8 in Super League.
To prepare for the match under league rules, Bath arranged a training session with Second Division outfit South Wales. However, it proved disastrous for them with the side still nursing the effects of celebrating their double success.
The first of the cross-code clashes in front of 20,148 curious spectators at Maine Road could hardly have got off to a worse start for the union boys either as Jon Callard, playing at scrum-half, failed to make the required 10 metres from the kick-off.
There was no respite for them as Martin Offiah, who started his career playing the 15-man code for Rosslyn Park, breezed past several would-be tacklers to put Wigan ahead with a try after just three minutes.
Offiah grabbed two more tries in the first half, along with Scott Quinnell, Henry Paul, Terry O’Connor, Craig Murdock, Jason Robinson and Andy Johnson all going over as the Cherry and Whites racked up nine tries in the first half alone.
Four conversions apiece for Andy Farrell and Martin Hall had Wigan 52-0 clear when referee Russell Smith blew his whistle for half time, although one bright point for Bath in the first 40 minutes was a crunching tackle from full-back Audley Lumsden on O’Connor winning the respect of the watching league fans.
The main problem for Bath was their defence being unable to get set in time or cope with the lines of running and support play from the league side, and things did not get better after the break.
Their persistence was rewarded in the 48th minute when Callard stepped the defence and sniped through for a try – which even some of the Wigan fans cheered – and converted, yet that proved only scant consolation for his side.
Offiah would end the night with six tries to his name, Robinson, O’Connor and Johnson all went over again as well, and Mick Cassidy got another as Wigan ran out 82-6 victors.
IF any further proof were needed that the wall between league and union was starting to come down, then Wigan taking part in rugby union’s traditional end-of-season party, the Middlesex Sevens, was it.
Wigan were one of the 22 founder members of the Northern Union when it split from the RFU in 1895, so there was perhaps an extra significance to them taking part in these cross-code encounters than them being simply the all-conquering rugby league side of the previous eight years.
Contrary to Bath’s disastrous preparations for the league match, the Cherry and Whites could hardly have wished for a better introduction to the world of union – albeit in the seven-a-side version.
The biggest worry was how the league boys would adapt to the mysteries of the breakdown – rather than having a play-the ball after a tackle – and the dark arts of contested scrums, although those worries would have been eased by their Sevens triumph at Twickenham.
Established powers such as Richmond, Harlequins and Leicester all fell by the wayside as Wigan set up a meeting with Wasps in the final. And despite losing Paul and Quinnell to injury earlier in the tournament, they ran out victors 38-15 after coming back from being 15 points down.
There might have been much harrumphing from some of the RFU blazer brigade at these northern oiks having the temerity to come and win their tournament, but Wigan won plenty of admirers too.
“Wigan had pace to burn and power to spare and even though Wasps, inspirationally led by Lawrence Dallaglio and badgered along by the busily effective Andy Gomarsall, denied them the ball for long periods during the final and opened up what should have been a decisive lead, there was only ever going to be one winner,” wrote The Independent’s rugby union correspondent, Chris Hewitt, who also picked out Paul as his star man.
The 15-a-side union game at Twickenham would prove somewhat different though.
“NO problem; I think Wigan’s professionalism will take them through. It won’t be a shock for me to see them win,” were the bullish words of a smirking Mike Stephenson in Sky Sports’ build-up to live coverage of the union encounter.
Ex-Bath and England fly-half turned union pundit Stuart Barnes, on the other hand could barely hide his sneering contempt for all things league.
“The man has been taking some sort of mushrooms up in the north of England,” he snorted. “There is no doubt at all – Bath are going to win this one by 30 points. They’re going to be too strong up front.”
The Wigan team included 42-year-old head coach Graeme West and 32-year-old Joe Lydon coming out of retirement to play in the specialist positions of lock and fly-half respectively, although it still took Wigan time to adapt to the nuances of union.
Bath were clearly out for revenge after their drubbing in Manchester and the first scrum resulted in both sets of forwards getting a little better acquainted.
Callard kicked Bath in front from a penalty and they were then awarded a penalty try for an infringement at the scrum. Two tries from Adebayo Adebayo and one from Jon Sleightholme.
Gary Connolly thought he had got Wigan on the board as half-time approached, finishing of a scintillating move started by a burst from Robinson. However, he was denied when referee Brian Campsall pulled play back for a forward pass on the say-so of his touch judge.
“I’ve been watching rugby union for years and I didn’t know you HAD the forward pass!” spouted an incredulous Stevo, adding: “That looked A-Okay to me!”
Leading 25-0 at half time, Bath moved further ahead after the break through tries from Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville. Yet soon after, Wigan started to mount something of a fightback.
Murdock finished off a move which had started deep inside their half, followed by Va’aiga Tuigamala bursting through the defence after Wigan had managed to turn the ball over at a ruck deep in Bath territory.
Ian Sanders dotted down off the back of a scrum for Bath’s seventh, but it was Murdock who had the last word after Wigan again broke from the own line, with Robinson providing the final pass for the half-back to go over for his second.
Although Wigan suffered a 44-19 loss, their comfortable win in the first leg saw them take an aggregate victory in the two-match series.
There were further long-term impacts too, with Robinson, Paul, Tuigamala and Farrell all eventually switching codes with varying degrees of success.
Lydon and Edwards would both take up coaching roles in union, with the latter particularly becoming feted in the 15-man game as a defensive mastermind and continuing at faithful sidekick to Wales coach Warren Gatland to this day.
Bradford Bulls later followed Wigan in entering and winning the Middlesex Sevens in 2002, while Twickenham has hosted two Challenge Cup finals and England’s first game of the 2000 Rugby League World Cup.
The ‘Clash of the Codes’ also led to some gleefully predicting the end of league and both games coming back together as just ‘rugby’. Fortunately, such a situation has never occurred and does not look likely too either.