Clarke picks his time off

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

The time is coming when Ben Clarke will not be able to absent himself from a Courage league match for his sister's wedding. But that is where he will be today rather than playing for Bath against Gloucester and, thank goodness, for now he has a greater priority in his life than rugby.

It cannot last, not now that rugby union is going professional, nor even now that the Rugby Football Union has put back for a year the uncomfortable day when the likes of Clarke can become club as well as international professionals. For season 1995-96 in England - and Ireland - the trade of club players is being restrained.

For this the clubs may give thanks, and even the players are understanding. "I can respect the decision in terms of giving the clubs time to assess the full impact of the changes in the game and get to grips with them," Tony Underwood, who yesterday terminated his career as a City broker in order to concentrate on his rugby, said.

By removing themselves from the world of real work, Underwood and other Englishmen are taking a risk on their continued selectability, whether for England or Leicester or whoever, and so the need to maximise their rugby income is suddenly pressing. Underwood knows this all too well, since recuperation from a knee operation will affect his earning power until December.

If concentration on their sport makes some players less rounded individuals, that is an unfortunate price rugby will have to pay for putting a price on its practitioners. But if, as with Clarke's removal from the Rec this afternoon, it assists Bath in coping with their excessive back-row riches, well and good.

In fact if you had not heard anything about the International Board's decision in Paris three weeks ago, you would think nothing much had changed. Harlequins against Wasps has become a September tradition and if Quins are to do something about their own unhallowed tradition in league rugby, today would be a good day on which to begin.

A year ago tomorrow Wasps ran up a half-century at The Stoop - which was both the early apotheosis of their magnificent obsession with running the ball from everywhere and the moment at which Quins revealed themselves as relegation candidates. In the end they hung on to their First Division place by one point.

"It shocked us that we so nearly went down and at the moment, despite everything else that is happening in rugby, the sole intent is in repairing the damage done last season," Dick Best, Quins' director of rugby, said.

"There were a large number of people who were delighted to put the knife into us when we were down. People were getting pleasure from deriding us and now we know we have to prove to everyone we can get results."

It is a plausible theory that Best's poor misunderstood Harlequins should be contenders along with Leicester, Bath and Wasps. But putting theory into practice, not least in the continuing absence of the new captain, Jason Leonard, is often talked about but believed only when it is actually seen.

Elsewhere Sale will confirm their capacity to join the aforementioned threesome if they beat the champions Leicester but here we are in week two and already the remaining first division fixtures - Bristol-West Hartlepool, Saracens-Orrell - primarily concern survival, all four having lost last Saturday.

What is more, you could argue that survival has never been more important to the players, as next season it will presumably mean a bigger wage- packet.

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