Bedford think big in third world

Rugby union diary Owen Slot
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WITH Bath strolling ever closer to a fifth Courage League title, and Northampton edging ever closer to the drop, you have to look down to League Three to find a league tussle set to go the distance. There, clear of the chasing pack, Bedford, Otley and Blackheath lie tied with 16 points a piece, two of the three to win promotion, and each of them with England experience aplenty to guide them upwards.

Otley are coached by Nigel Melville, Blackheath have Mickey Skinner on the coaching and playing staff (though he has been more noticeable this season for his sartorial bravado in the BBC press box than he has for any acts of valour on the park), and Bedford are coached by Mike Rafter and have Fran Clough, eight years on from his last cap, still scoring tries from the centre.

Bedford are favourites, having narrowly missed out last year; Otley are quietly confident with experience on their side, having gone up and then back down again in the last two seasons. Otley, though, as Melville bemoans, are afloat in Yorkshire's sea of troubles: too many clubs in a small catchment area. Harrogate and Morley are also in League Three, Wakefield are in League Two and Leeds are in League Four; the five clubs are no more than 20 miles apart and the consequence is that local talent is too thinly spread.

"I'd love to see a Yorkshire side up there," Melville says, "but I just don't see it happening. We need a club where we can pool our best players, but we're all so parochial. No one is going to say `Lets all go to Wakefield, or Otley or wherever,' because we're all interested in our own teams."

The result is one of the worst talent drains in the country. "All we do is breed good players and move them to the First Division. We lose players to Wakefield, they lose them to League One." Diccon Edwards (to Leicester), John Sleightholme (to Bath) and Dave Baldwin (to Sale) were last year's departees - will this come to an end? "No. Young players who want to play in the First Division say, `Right, I've waited here long enough.' " And Melville has every sympathy - he moved from Otley to Wasps when he was just 19.

PUNTERS in Cardiff yesterday were asked to sign a petition demanding that rugby internationals continue to be played at the Arms Park. With a modern superstadium necessary for the WRU's bid to stage the 1999 World Cup final, the alternative to a redeveloped Arms Park is a new £100m stadium on a site in Bridgend where a farmer has offered a large expanse of land. Few, however, see the Bridgend alternative as more than political kite- flying from a WRU which is aware of the revenue the internationals bring to the city but has, for a long time, baulked at the £400,000 rates the city council charges. The WRU has played such games before: in 1966, when planning permission for the stadium's redevelopment was proving problematic, it published plans for a move, also to Bridgend. The following day, the city mayor summoned the top WRU men and planning permission went through immediately.

ROSS KEMP, better known as Grant Mitchell, the EastEnders' hard man, is back playing as a utility threequarter for Brentwood, the London Two North side, after a period out playing King Rat in a local pantomime. Kemp is strong - we know that because we saw the way he hospitalised Phil, his TV brother, recently - but not strong enough to halt the progress of Staines who consolidated their position atop the division with a 24- 10 win last weekend. Staines, however, are themselves by no means the hard men of rugby: after the match, they voted to cancel Valentine's Day training in order to court their partners.