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Rugby Union and signing for Bradford

Since the great split in 1895, rugby union has always sought to distance itself from its northern counterpart. From the outset the RFU emphasised its rules against professionalism and strove to prevent any contact between Rugby Union and Rugby League.

Unfortunately Len found himself caught in the middle of this ongoing feud between the two codes of rugby as he set out on his career. Like many young men with a Rugby League playing background, Len played Rugby Union during national service, as it was the only code of rugby that was played in the Armed Forces during the 1950s. But instead of returning to his roots after being demobbed in 1950, he was persuaded to stay in the 15-a-side code, and play for Cleckheaton Rugby Union Club, alongside friends he had made in the Army.

However, whilst RFU regulations against professionalism in general and, more significantly for Len, Rugby League in particular were suspended in the armed forces, they remained strictly enforced elsewhere in the sport. Indeed the RFU had gone to great lengths to ensure all rugby union clubs were aware of the penalty of signing players who had played rugby league at any level. As Tony Collins explains in his book ‘Rugby League in Twentieth Century Britain’:

“Although the policies of the RFU had serious consequences for transgressors, the impact went much deeper, helping to create an atmosphere of fear within union itself and of contempt towards rugby league. Using a variation of the Catholic Church’s concept of culpable ignorance, the fear of inadvertently transgressing the union’s amateur code was encouraged by the posters distributed by the RFU for display in dressing rooms and clubhouses from the 1920s to the late 1950s. These outlined seventeen different ways in which amateur rules could be violated, including ‘signing any form of the Northern Union (Rugby League)’.”

Today it may seem odd that a player can be banned from one sport for participating in another, but this was still the case within the rugby world both during and after the 1950s. So even though he had only played rugby league at amateur level, once his background was brought to the attention of the RFU, Len became one of the many players who received life time bans from rugby union because they had played rugby league as a youngster.

Thankfully these restrictions were broken down in the 1980s following a series of challenges. Initially, after its establishment in 1973, BARLA began to campaign for a ‘free gangway’ for amateur players at recreational level, and their cause was subsequently taken up by the campaign for Freedom in Rugby and the All-Party Parliamentary Rugby League Group during the following decade. Under this pressure, the RFU had no option but to relax its regulations and in 1987 a ‘free gangway’ between the sports at amateur level was introduced. But individual cases of discrimination continued, resulting in the Sports (Discrimination) Bill, which was introduced by MP David Hinchcliffe in 1994. However, the partition between the codes was finally ended, following a complete turn around in Rugby Union which saw professionalism legalised in 1995, ninety nine years and 363 days after the Northern Union had broken away.

Len (third from the right) whilst playing for Overthorpe Rangers during his amateur Rugby League days.

Len (front row, third from the left) in 1951/52, shortly after becoming a professional player with Bradford Northern