Are titles and relegation all that is at stake this season?

Tony Underwood considers the wider implications of the new professional era for domestic rugby union
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The Independent Online
The 1995-96 domestic season was supposed to be a year of quiet reflection after the hurly-burly of a world cup. Instead the game has been turned on its head with all the turbulence created by the wrangles between Kerry Packer and the rugby authorities and the advent of professionalism.

The season will now be one of consolidation, clubs and players finding their way in new uncharted waters. Answers are required and guidelines to be set, and soon. One such problem is the movement of players. The International Rugby Board now allows for payments for the transfer of players, yet at present there is a rule which says that a player must wait 120 days before he can play for his new club. The idea behind the rule was to inhibit such transfers, however you could argue that this is restraint of trade for a professional and that the rule should now be abolished.

The biggest issue to be resolved, however, is that of knowing whether the league title and relegation are all that is at stake this season.

As most people seem to be in agreement that the gap between club and country needs bridging it now seems certain that pan-European competition will be another goal for the clubs to play for, but for who and for how many? Furthermore, should talk of the creation of super-clubs at existing rugby hot-beds be the vehicles to take us on to the continent then who are they, and does that leave the other clubs anything to play for?

The wheels seem to be in motion already as Newcastle Gosforth rugby club have been brought under the wing of their neighbouring football giant. Perhaps a shrewd bit of silver for the re-emerged Magpies but plans could go on hold after the RFU's decision to delay club professionalism.

The unanswerable question though will be the motives of the players. There has been much talk of money yet little of tactics. It would be wise to realise that the former will naturally follow on from successful translation of the latter. Indeed most clubs in the recent past who have tried to build up a team through giving players incentives to join have found success difficult to achieve. Home-grown talent breeds team spirit, which breeds success a la Bath and Leicester. The aim for a club like mine, Leicester, is to maintain our success in this new period where transfers for money may be come commonplace. Already programmes to foster young players in the area are in place, but the crucial area is at first team level and how players respond to new pressures.

On the playing front at Leicester we will wish to build on the psychological benefits of last year's league title win, playing rugby with fewer inhibitions and expressing ourselves much like the Tigers sides of past vintage. The onus will be on clubs like ourselves to satisfy not just our own supporters, of whom there are many, but also the throng of spectators new to the sport who want to know what all the fuss is about. Credit to the Welsh union, who have introduced bonus points for tries scored in their Heineken club championship.

The challenge for our title this season will undoubtedly come from Bath, keen to regain their crown, and Wasps, themselves past winners. Bath still ooze class throughout, especially in the back division. The focus for the England squad will be on how Mike Catt develops as a fly-half and what Bath's new captain, Phil de Glanville, does with his back row and hookers. I don't envy him there. Wasps will have benefited greatly from taking the scalps of Bath in the league and Tigers in the Cup last year. Their open brand of rugby proved their downfall against the big guns early in the season but they learnt to adapt their style of play and will, as a result, be tougher to beat as well as enjoyable to watch this season.

Where I do expect this season to be different from last is that the three big clubs will probably not be as dominant. As a result, and with so much at stake, this promises to be a fascinating and extremely hard-fought season with great importance attached to each and every fixture. The only disappointment is that the structure of the season is such that once again we have a stop-start league programme which helps neither players nor viewers.