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The Boks who went to Wigan

Springboks Ray Mordt and Rob Louw made the tough decision to switch to rugby league in the late 1980s and joined English powerhouse Wigan. Were they simply ahead of their time, or are any ‘code-switchers’ simply on a hiding to nothing? Timmy Hancox found out more.

Mordt and Louw played for the Boks during rugby union’s amateur era, while the great game’s cousin rugby league had already turned professional.

In the midst of all the political unrest in South Africa in 1985, the All Blacks tour was cancelled which proved to be the final straw for Mordt and Louw, who then decided to cut their losses and head overseas.

“I would never have left rugby union of it wasn’t for Apartheid,” Mordt told this website.

“When tours to South Africa were getting cancelled I made the decision to play league, because it made the most financial sense for me at the time.”

Louw echoed Mordt’s disappointment of the cancelled tour, with an unenjoyable internal tour against Barbarians sides (North, Central, Cape and then SA Barbarians who beat the Boks) proving to be a poor substitute.

“When the All Blacks tour was cancelled an offer to go to league was put on the table, so Ray and I went across to see a few clubs,” Louw reminisced in conversation with us. “[Former Springbok centre] Danie Gerber was going to go with us, but eventually didn’t move across and Ray and I decided to give it a go at Wigan.”

At the time Wigan was arguably top rugby league club in the world, with a sustained period of success from the mid-80s through to the early 1990s, where they won the Challenge Cup eight seasons in a row and the League Championship sevens times in succession.

“At the time Wigan were the best club in the world,” Louw confirmed.

According to Mordt that there was a wealth of talent available to the coaching staff as he explained: “In the Wigan team almost every player was an international and we played with the likes of Ellery Hanley, Joe Lydon, Andy Goodway, Shaun Edwards and many others.”

Adapting to league would always be the challenge for two South Africans who had grown up playing union their whole lives… and it proved to be a tough move for the Bok duo.

“We were effectively playing against guys who were the best in the world to try and get a place in the team and we knew we were up against it,” Louw explained.

“Ray they took and put straight into the side being a back, while I started out in the reserves side at the beginning.

“My first few games were hard because they guys went after me – coming from union with my blond hair and a nice tan. The boys went out to break my nose and I think it was broken four or five times at the start, but your learn quickly and start breaking noses yourself! It is a tough game and a very hard game.

“I think it is tough to be a forward and move to league, because you need to be a semi-backline player,” said Louw, speaking of a game which has just thirteen players – in other words, no flankers. “(But) that suited me because I was that type of player and I was a roaming loose forward.”

But it was not just about positional changes, as Mordt and Louw soon found out.

Louw continued: “One thing we couldn’t understand was that we were always used as impact players, which was foreign to us, because in union at that stage there were no impact players. They would bring us on for 25 minutes or so, which upset us and I didn’t like that because I always wanted to play a whole match.

“If you are much better than some of the league players coming from union, then they’ll never trust you. I think that’s why they weren’t sure about how to use Ray and I at times.”

While Mordt enjoyed his time at Wigan he, too, had his reservations about joining a league side.

“The game is very different, but it is a lovely game and a lot of rugby league has found its way into union over the years,” said Mordt.

“Union is definitely the preferred game to me and it has a lot more facets to it. There are different types of athletes if you compare your front row, locks and then your backs, while in league it’s more like having a big loose forward playing in the front row. There also aren’t things like rucks and mauls, so that makes union a far more interesting game if you ask me.

“I think it’s much easier for a union player to go and play league, than the other way around. A league guy will have to learn about scrums, what a right shoulder is, he’ll have to understand different situations on the field and what line-outs are.

“There are more rules in the union game, so it’s very difficult for a league player to come across and make a mark. The union guys have now adapted the defensive skills that the league guys use, so it makes it even harder these days.”

Despite enjoying some success in league there is no doubt in which code Louw and Mordt’s affections lie.

“The people in the north of England there don’t watch union and actually hate union because it’s played by the posh people,” Louw explained.

“It’s quite weird to rock up there and they weren’t happy to see us signed from union for quite a bit of money… while English guys were signed at 17 or 18 years old for a pittance.

“The guys played, turned around and went home, so it was about making money. In my day in union there was always more of a team feeling and a case of having a beer after the game.”

It certainly was not a case of having wasted his time at Wigan, but there is no doubt where Mordt’s – like Louw’s – allegiance will always lie.

“Looking back, I won five medals with Wigan – it was an incredible experience and I really enjoyed it. It put some money in my back pocket, which the union guys weren’t making yet at that stage.

“But it was a very different type of game and a different type of people involved and there is no doubt I prefer rugby union by a long way.”

By Timmy Hancox

* Look out for the final union v league feature in this series, as we take a look at which young South African – according to his coach – may just have benefited from a stint in league.

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