Deflated divisionals search for a place in the game

A competition with an uncertain future seeks a rationale, says Steve Bale
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The Independent Online
To see what English rugby's Divisional Championship has come to mean, the poignant sight of Brian Moore leading London against the North at Wakefield this afternoon will suffice perfectly well.

It has always been the divisionals' problem that they fell between two stools, being neither a competition to inspire passion and feeling in the manner of the best of domestic club rugby or southern-hemisphere provinces, nor straightforward trials for the England team.

So England's discarded, most-capped hooker returns to the London side as captain, one might say precisely because the England management no longer appear to want him no matter how ambitious he may still feel. Simon Mitchell, on the other hand, was elevated to the England squad only two days ago, but has to sit on the London bench as Moore's understudy.

For these two Harlequins, there is the additional complication of their own in-house rivalry, the Quins rota having consistently worked in Mitchell's favour this season. You could even argue that Moore's selection shows he has to take any chance he can get.

That said, these would be less evident conclusions were it not for the change which has seen the Divisional Championship become an overtly developmental competition, certainly since the 1991 World Cup, and which almost by chance has given it a far stronger raison d'etre.

Moore, one presumes, would not fit into the developmental category and so must be there specifically to help London win. But if they do, so what? I have to confess that the identity of last year's divisional champions eluded me until I used a reference book as a reminder that it was the Midlands, who play the South West at Gloucester today.

As the Rugby Football Union now wishes to kill off this championship but keep the divisional sides going by organising them from Twickenham to play overseas opposition, this season's competition has even less going for it than usual, although interested parties will wish to know that this is the second round of fixtures, the Midlands and North having won last Sunday.

Besides, the RFU's plans are the starting-point for another debate about who indeed should represent England when touring teams are among us. Phil de Glanville, the Bath captain, is one who wants it to be leading club sides; in the North, they not only favour the divisions but also want the RFU to put divisional teams and not clubs into European competition.

Of this there is no chance, but as an aside to a fundamental debate it is instructive to note that this afternoon's opponents for the Western Samoans are Cambridge University, a club side and pristine amateurs to boot, following on from Oxford on Wednesday.

True, the divisions will then in turn have their chance before the Twickenham Test on 16 December, but in the meantime the future direction of English rugby is, like it or not, better expressed by Newcastle, for whom the international ex-Wasps Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan and Nick Popplewell at last make their debut against Harrogate today. Pristine professionals, all three.