Cobner calls for common approach

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The Independent Online
The latest confirmation of the gulf between the haves and have-nots of world rugby - England, Wales and France soundly beaten by out-of-season contingents from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the space of 24 hours - drew a call for northern hemisphere unity yesterday from one of the few voices of common sense still to be found in a British game more obsessed with raising money than raising standards.

Terry Cobner, the full-time director of rugby in Wales, was never one for cross-border harmony during his playing career as a fiercely patriotic, bruisingly hard loose forward; indeed, his interests barely extended beyond Pontypool Park, let alone the Severn Bridge.

But repeated reverses against the superpowers from south of the equator have persuaded him that the common approach is the only realistic solution. "The gap in skill and fitness levels is narrowing, but nowhere near as quickly as we would like," the former Lions flanker said. "It is now time for the major European nations to bury their parochialism, address the problem together and come up with a programme that is best for the northern hemisphere as a whole."

While both England and the French have enjoyed victories over all three southern nations since the turn of the decade, the overall European performance is the stuff of embarrassment. Wales have not recorded a win since beating Australia in the 1987 World Cup, Scotland's losing streak goes back to 1983 and Ireland's to 1979. Of the 83 full internationals played by British sides against the big trio over the last 20 years, 69 have been lost, many heavily.

Cobner wants to see a structured fixture programme agreed by the four home unions and France - progress may be made on that front before Christmas - and is keen to expand the Heineken European Cup into a home-and-away format next year.

"We can play some domestic rugby at the start of the season and then return to it at the end," he said, suggesting that the meat of the campaign should include up to 13 European matches for each participating club plus six full internationals, two of them against touring sides.

His prognosis for European rugby was not entirely apocalyptic. "We may not be strong individually at the moment, but I think the Lions selectors will be able to come up with a collective outfit capable of beating the Springboks in South Africa next summer. We have first-class people in charge of the Lions, men who have been there and done it and have strong ideas about how we should approach the tour. I'm encouraged by that."