Clubs face bottom line

Chris Rea looks at the serious implications for those fighting relegation
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The Independent Online
THE RESOLVE of the International Board partially to dismantle amateurism brick by brick rather than with gelignite, was to provoke derision and outrage. One parliamentarian, a well known opponent of rugby union and its administration, even went so far as to equate the restrictions which remain on rugby league players who wish to return to union with a sentence for gross indecency. There has been nothing more grossly indecent in recent months, however, than the erosion of football, a national monument imperilled by corruption or the obliteration of boxing's conscience by cynical manipulation and avarice.

At least this time the IB have displayed a greater understanding of the game's problems. The recognition that any decision to alter rugby's status is of overwhelming importance to its future prosperity has quite properly persuaded the board to proceed with the utmost caution. They have made it clear that they will not be railroaded by anyone - by MPs with chips on their shoulders or by leading players who have a vested interest in securing a change in the law as quickly as possible.

There could be no more powerful argument against the headlong flight into professionalism than the sordid examples being set in other sports. But of all the statements made by the IB, the most welcome was the recognition that there is too much rugby being played.

How unfortunate that the Rugby Football Union had not arrived at the same conclusion when they were planning their schedule for the current domestic season. They appear to have been driven more by commercial interests rather than out of consideration for the players and the clubs. The players have been faced with a conflict of loyalty, the clubs with an uncertain future. This is the prospect which confronts either Northampton or Harlequins should they be relegated next month.

When the decision was taken to proceed with a full league programme in World Cup year, it was probably not envisaged that two of the most powerful and richly resourced clubs in the land would find themselves in this predicament. The first division would be poorer without them but the increasing likelihood is that one of them will fall through the trap door. Never has the first division been stronger, confirmed by Bath's fitful and at times lucky progress this season. The gap between first and last has closed appreciably.

Northampton, bottom at the moment, have been assured that they will be able to count on the continuing support of Ian McGeechan, their coach, and all their leading players.And to their already strong squad will be added Gregor Townsend and Jonathan Bell which should ensure an immediate return to the top tier. Even so, Northampton are as uncomfortably aware as Harlequins that, although they could stand the financial strain of second division rugby for one season, they could not survive in their present form and with their existing commitments beyond that. Which makes next week's meeting between the two a match of crucial importance.

Harlequins, a point ahead, also have the benefit of home adsvantage, but of the two they have the harder run-in. Next Saturday at least both clubs should be able to call on their international players. McGeechan believes the final decision on whether or not to play should be left to the players but it must be in the country's interests that the players are exposed to as much high-class competition as possible before leaving for South Africa. McGeechan says that prior to the 1987 World Cup Jack Rowell, then the Bath coach, requested permission from the Scottish Rugby Union to play David Sole in his Cup final side days before the Scots left for New Zealand. It was granted. "I think," said McGeechan, "that Jack owes me one."

The relegation zone

P W D L F A Pts

W Hartlepool 13 4 1 8 237 297 9

Harlequins 13 3 1 9 182 265 7

Northampton 13 3 0 10 190 283 6