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Rugby league has developed a winning formula, but is it enough of a draw for Scots?

MY first real flirtation with rugby league was some 20 years ago when Wigan were in their pomp and rugby union was suffering a major identity crisis as it agonised over whether to own up to having turned professional.

Matty Russell rose to prominence as Scotland impressed in the Rugby League World Cup last autumn. Picture: Getty Sport
Matty Russell rose to prominence as Scotland impressed in the Rugby League World Cup last autumn. Picture: Getty Sport

Wigan played a brand of rugby which was both breathtaking and timeless as they won eight Challenge Cup finals in a row, with the likes of Andy Farrell, Denis Betts, "Mean" Dean Bell and Martin "Chariots" Offiah demonstrating their skills. Then there was the nugget of granite that was - and still is - Shaun Edwards, who played in a record 11 finals, winning nine of them including 1990, when he played 70 minutes with a shattered cheek-bone and eye socket.

To this day, one of my fondest sporting memories is of attending the 1994 final and the mixed feelings experienced when Martin Offiah - a defector from rugby union- raced away for what should always be remembered as the greatest score ever registered at the old Wembley (Geoff who?).

As exhilarating as the moment was, I would have preferred it had the man in his wake not been one of Scotland's greatest rugby players, Alan Tait. He had given Bill Lothian of Edinburgh's Evening News and I the excuse to make the trip.

Everything about the day, from the walk up Wembley Way among supporters of every rugby league club, to the post-match interviews for which Taity ushered us into the Leeds dressing room (even then it was a culture shock compared with Scottish rugby's over-officiousness), spoke well of the sport.

However, rugby union got its act together the following year, ended the shamateur era, went open officially, introduced Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations and, briefly, seemed to have the best of both worlds. As the two codes developed a new relationship, and union's 'anti-league' bigots became ever more irrelevant, pace and vigour was injected into the version of the sport that could always claim a sort of competitive superiority when it came to the contest for the ball in all areas.

The likes of Jason Robinson and Lote Tuqiri - the only try scorers for their respective sides when England won the 2003 World Cup final - not to mention Robinson's aforementioned Wigan team-mates Farrell, Betts and Edwards, were drawn from league into various roles in the 15-a-side game.

Simplistic as it was, my own view was that professional rugby union had almost become chess to league's draughts.

Yet reactionary forces have, in a variety of ways both on and off the field, worked against those who championed change in terms of providing a more entertaining version of the sport and then sucked almost all joy out of it. That is why the Rugby League World Cup last autumn was a breath of fresh air.

Our initial intention at Herald Sport - to attend Scotland's opener in Workington by way of doing a bit of a colour piece on the curiosity of Scottish involvement in a sport that is hardly played this side of the border - had to be revised rapidly as our national team exceeded all expectations.

In Danny Brough, their tyke of a captain (in every sense), the team had a leader who is the closest I have seen to matching the creativity and hardness of Shaun Edwards. Their against-all-odds run to a quarter-final meeting with defending champions New Zealand was of almost epic proportions.

It was not just their defiance of the odds, but the way they did it. Matty Russell, their full-back who is now lighting up Warrington, emerged as a true star, while their happy band of Aussie imports and dual-qualified English Northerners, as well as Stirling's David Scott, melded into the most cohesive Scottish international rugby team I had watched in more than 20 years.

League, meanwhile, also has far greater potential for drawing the uninitiated into a form of rugby far easier to learn by way of introducing participants to a running, handling, tackling sport.

In saying all that, the aforementioned World Cup has provided the sport with an opportunity that must now be seized in Scotland as much as anywhere. Plenty of people in this country, not just itinerant English northerners but Scots who got hooked on league in the Grandstand era, will tell you that it is the better game and they are entitled to that opinion.

The measure of which is the better professional sport is not merely through subjective comparison, but through the hard currency of bums on seats.

That is not to suggest that rugby league's potential in Scotland should be assessed solely on the basis of attendance at the Commonwealth Under-19s Nines Championships over the next couple of days, yet it should have huge appeal to true league aficionados.

Opportunities for the case to be made are few and far between, though, and, if league really does have the capacity to grow beyond its heartlands of the Pennines and Australia's eastern seaboard, then it is put up or shut up time for leagueys in these parts, as Scotland bid to build on their World Cup success. See you all at Cumbernauld tomorrow?

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