Country or club dilemma

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The biggest topic of the week has not been the eccentricities of Olivier Merle but the organisation of the English season. Dick Best has denounced it in the Guardian and, in more circumspect tones, Ian McGeechan has questioned it on Rugby Special. It is both appropriate and unsurprising that these two distinguished coaches should have raised their voices at this stage of the year. Best runs the playing side of Harlequins, McGeechan that of Northampton. Both clubs are threatened with relegation from the Courage First Division. On 11 March, they are due to play each other. On 18 March, England play Wales at Cardiff.

It has now been decreed by the England manager, Jack Rowell, that the players for the Welsh match will have to refrain from turning out for their clubs on the previous Saturday. This means that, if the present team remain unchanged, Will Carling, Jason Leonard and Brian Moore will not be appearing for Quins, while Martin Bayfield and Tim Rodber will miss the match for the Saints.

Already Rodber - like Moore, the club captain - has protested, even though in the respectful tones one would expect of a junior officer.

In one sense, the players have no cause for complaint. Rowell has merely hardened a policy initiated by his predecessor, Geoff Cooke.

But the policy does not apply to Pilkington Cup matches. On Saturday, England play France at Twickenham. Last Saturday, Mike Catt, Jeremy Guscott and Victor Ubogu turned out for Bath; Carling, Leonard and Moore for Quins; Dean Richards and Rory and Tony Underwood for Leicester; Kyran Bracken for Bristol; and Rob Andrew for Wasps. Only Bayfield, Ben Clarke, Martin Johnson and Rodber preferred to take things easy.

The French match is being billed as the encounter which will decide the Five Nations' Championship. It may do: but this is by no means inevitable.

After all, England have beaten France in the last seven matches, six in this competition - an extraordinary record, which is quite enough on its own to explain French sensitivity and apprehension, without any need to become immersed in what are thought to be national psychological characteristics. And yet, within this period, France have won the championship twice, England twice, Wales once, and Scotland once.

Even so, we can agree that the match will be important. Rowell allowed 11 of his side, including his entire back division, to risk serious injury. In his own terms, this does not make sense.

There is a solution which I outlined last week and would satisfy all parties. The Divisional Championship would be abolished outright or allowed to fade away as the preserve of second-class players. This is what has happened to the County Championship. September would be given over to the preliminary stages of the cup. The five months from October to February would be reserved for the leagues.

The international season would begin in March and end in April. The first Saturday in May would see the semi-finals of the cup and the second Saturday, the final. During the international season, the clubs would play friendly matches.

Suppose we cannot have this arrangement, or something like it. In this imperfect world, it is a reasonable supposition to make. In that case, I am afraid, Rowell should be told by the Rugby Football Union that he cannot dictate to players and clubs in his present high-handed fashion.

English football began to go downhill when the clubs started to consider themselves more important than the national side. They would deny England a player because he was due to appear in a European fixture, or even in an important League game, in a few days. They still behave in this way.

There is no danger of the rugby clubs following their example. What we have now is the reverse; a policy which is unfair to the clubs. Certainly they should not be allowed to insist that players must turn out a week before an international. But equally, individuals such as Richards - who enjoys rugby rather than training - should not be prohibited from playing if that is what they want to do.