Rewind: When union and league collided

Farce or showdown, major sporting event or marketing stunt? As Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor prepare to fight on Saturday, one factor in debate is the strangeness of the event, with masters of two closely-allied sports facing off under the rules of one.

Perhaps the closest parallel, allowing for rugby being a team rather than an individual sport, is to be found back in May 1996 when Bath played Wigan in a two-legged ‘Cross-Code Challenge’, the first match under league rules, the second under union.

It was less than a year since the decision taken by union in August 1995 to end its ideological commitment to amateurism. That opened the way to contact between the two codes, and a natural desire to test each other out. Plans for the cross-code matches were announced in January 1996.

There was no doubt about the quality of the protagonists, each not only the best in England, but with some claims to being the best ever. Few questioned attaching that label to the Wigan team which had won seven consecutive league and cup doubles, and a fair few other trophies, between 1989 and 1995.

And while the much shorter history of competitive union makes Bath’s standing harder to assess, it is unlikely that any earlier team could have done much better than their record of 10 cups in the previous 13 seasons and six championships in eight, with yet another double completed the week before the teams met under league rules at Maine Road, Manchester.

Not everybody liked the idea of the matches. Bath’s biggest star, England and Lions centre Jeremy Guscott, refused to play. The RFU was decidedly lukewarm, pleading reseeding of the pitch at Twickenham as a reason for not hosting the union leg until an offer came in from Cardiff, and there was a sudden change of heart. And there were to be a fair few empty seats, with a little over 20,000 attending at Maine Road followed by 42,000 at Twickenham.

At Maine Road, Wigan crossed Bath’s line within 90 seconds, only for Martin Offiah’s score to be disallowed for a foot in touch. The reprieve was short-lived. Within another 90 seconds he was over again, scoring the first of six tries — all converted — that Wigan were to score in the first 23 minutes.

Martin Offiah ran riot in the league game — running in six of Wigan’s 16 tries.┬áNeal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

It was, as reporter Dave Hadfield pointed out, what Wigan had done to many league opponents, “blitzing them in the opening minutes and reducing the game to a mis-match.” It was 16 minutes before Bath managed to run the ball through five tackles without an error. Wigan felt safe to take Henry Paul and Andy Farrell off within 10 minutes of the start, and Bath, overrun, were reduced to pleading successfully at halftime for unlimited substitutions.

The final toll was 16 tries, six of them by Offiah, and 82 points to the six for Callard’s try and conversion. Perhaps the most vivid memory was of Bath’s complete inability to halt the pinball-like progress of Wigan wing Jason Robinson as he swerved, darted and brushed off tacklers. The simple truth was, as Hadfield reported, that Wigan, under league rules, were ‘too fast, too powerful and too inventive’.

There was at least, and in marked contrast to the ugly trash-talking of the Mayweather-McGregor preliminaries, mutual respect. Edwards said that Bath “never gave up and you have to give them credit. Lots of sides would have put their heads down, but full credit to them.” De Glanville recognised Wigan as “a fantastic side. They’re so hard to stop with their lines of running, in particular the pack. They came on at pace.”

The extent of Wigan’s dominance led some to speculate that they might complete a ‘double’ under union rules. And they did nothing to still such talk the following week with a resounding victory as a guest team in the Middlesex Sevens, beating Richmond, Harlequins and Leicester before coming back from a 15-0 deficit in the final against Wasps.

Edwards recalled Bath’s England lock Nigel Redman saying at Maine Road ‘see you at Twickenham’ and realising that “he couldn’t wait to get at us in the scrums.” Wigan practised against local club Orrell, then a Premiership team, and “soon realised that the dark arts of union in terms of scrum and breakdown were going to be incredibly difficult.”

And so it proved. If Robinson’s brilliance was what stuck in the mind from Maine Road, at Twickenham it was Wigan’s utter bemusement at the breakdown. The statisticians stopped counting after Bath had won the first 20 rucks and their first score was a penalty try for collapsing a scrum. It was 18 minutes before Wigan handled in opposition territory and, as Jonathan Davies observed, “they were constantly infringing rules they didn’t know existed.”

Wigan were torn apart at the scrum in the union match at Twickenham. Mike Hewitt/Allsport

It was 25-0 at halftime, with Wigan effectively shut out of the game. They did manage to make an impact after the break as their superior fitness and handling — precisely the attributes that would have made it a surprise had they not won the Sevens — told and they scored three tries, the first of which, a length of the field effort completed by Craig Murdoch, was worthy to rank with anything ever seen at Twickenham. The final score was 44-19.

Far from setting a precedent, the cross-code challenge was more or less a one-off. It has been repeated once, within a single match between Sale and St Helens in 2003, one half under union rules, the second as league. That Sale won the first half 41-0 and held on, just, as the Saints won the league half 39-0 suggested some shift in the balance of power, but no increase in the compatibility of the two sports.

As to what it has to tell us about Saturday night’s event in Las Vegas, bearing in mind the team versus solo sport element, maybe McGregor will succeed where such champions as Canelo Alvarez, Juan Manuel Marquez and Manny Pacquaio have failed, and penetrate possibly the best defence in boxing history.

But there are two teams of very fine rugby players who can tell him, on the basis of their own experience 21 years ago, quite how tough that is likely to be.

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