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Learning from simplicity of rugby league could make union more accessible to youngsters

Watching the Scotland captain Danny Brough light up Rugby League's Magic Weekend at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday was a lovely reminder of one of the real highlights of this rugby season.

As last season's Super League "Man of Steel" skipped crossfield, spotted a gap, then burst into open field to set up a scintillating Huddersfield Giants try, you could only wonder at what Scottish rugby union missed out on when they failed to seal a deal while courting the little dynamo a few years ago.

More telling, though, than the performance of Brough was that of a lad named Russell.

One of his clansmen may have done well enough with Glasgow Warriors to earn a tour with the national squad, but seeing Matty Russell shine in a Warrington Wolves outfit that ripped to shreds a St Helen's side that was poised to go top of the Super League had they won, again, took me back.

Workington and LS Lowry's Salford were, at once, other-worldly and realer-than-real as settings for those memorable World Cup nights which, for the first time in many, many years, generated real pride and passion in watching a Scotland national team in action.

No-one did more for the cause than Irvine-born Russell, who looks the most natural of footballers, in turn inviting speculation as to what might have happened to him in sporting terms had his family not moved to Wigan when he was a tot.

Not since Alan Tait, the son of a rugby league professional who was reared in the borders, have I seen a Scottish player blessed with the capacity to cut the right angle at the right moment in the way Russell repeatedly did at key stages during the World Cup campaign.

George Graham, like Tait a dual-code internationalist, has suggested that every Scottish union player should spend at least a season in league. Yet what if union got over its combination of snootiness, laced with fear, and realised that, in the 13-a-side code, they have a potential ally rather than a rival?

In terms of sports based around running with ball in hand and full-on collisions, it offers an easier way of engaging youngsters than the methods used by the army of Scottish Rugby Union development officers whose impact in terms of real growth in playing numbers at senior level is, at best, debatable.

That, in turn, fits in with my long-held view that Irish rugby gained enormously when the sport went open because it could offer professional careers not only to those brought up in the sport but to those who had developed many of the requisite skills in the avowedly amateur code of Gaelic football.

If the first task is to generate interest in rugby as opposed to football in particular, how much easier is it to do that if they are spending all their time engaged in running and tackling, rather than standing around in the cold learning the technicalities or scrummaging and lineouts? That is not to mention the near-impenetrable matter of learning how best to cheat and get away with it at the breakdown.

The agonising that rugby union is rightly engaged in at the moment over how best to protect young necks from the obvious dangers of front-row scrummaging ought to be another consideration and a reminder of how and why rugby league has evolved.

While there is a powerful intellectual argument in favour of union's determination to maintain a genuine contest for the ball in every area of the game, league has become what it is for practical reasons. Made professional more than half a century before cameras featured at sports grounds, it had to adapt rules to protect participants and ensure entertainment.

Rewarding skill is also a factor, though, and has, relatively recently, resulted in the '40-20' kick law - rarely exploited as well as Brough did in a match-changing moment on Sunday - and the decision to treat corner flags as part of the field of play, which allows for some breath-taking finishing. The result is a

more understandable running, handling, collision game that will,

as with Matty Russell, suit the natural abilities and attitudes of a lot of Scots-born youngsters better than football.

In many ways, where union used to pride itself on being a game for people of all shapes and sizes, league is the sport for athletes of all shapes and sizes. There is still room for tough, but lightweight players like Brough and Russell who find it harder and harder to thrive in the ever-more gargantuan rival code.

In the short term, a huge opportunity for athletes like them presents itself next month. League officials have recently issued a stream of releases outlining how Jamaicans, Canadians and Papua New Guineans only recently introduced to their sport will be on representative duty at the Commonwealth Under-19 Championships at Cumbernauld.

Scotland-qualified players have, meanwhile, been invited to open trials on either side of the border and the uptake so far has apparently been encouraging, with many who were brought up in rugby union preparing to give it a go.

Beyond that the chance for Scottish rugby is clear but, in this would-be country that faces its biggest question later this year, caution and wariness has a tendency to outweigh the bold and obvious when it comes to making changes for the greater good.

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