Game must tackle the enterprise culture

while a small-town team determined to join the elite make it their business to stay ahead of the pack; Chris Rea argues that the new era must involve a domestic shift from caution to flair
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The Independent Online
"SO WHAT are we going to do lads? Do we open our hearts, minds and legs to an all-running extravaganza of entertainment or do we batten down the hatches, play it tight and pray for First Division survival?" It is not only the club treasurers, confronted by short-term contracts, weekly wage bills and win bonuses, who are bewildered and confused at the start of the new season. Whatever happened to the days when forwards pushed in the scrums and jumped in the line-outs (although not necessarily in that order), backs handled and passed and everyone had a jolly good time? Long gone, folks. Money and success are the guiding principles from now on, and although no one needs reminding of the correlation between the two it is no longer just someone else's problem.

As far back as at the turn of the century commentators were offering the view that the fortunes of the game at club level were inextricably linked with the success or failure of the national side. In which case the despondency in Wales as they disappear into the abyss of professionalism is not hard to imagine. Nor can the Irish feel any more secure. The Scots, who have been sending out conflicting signals in recent weeks, appear to be on the rollercoaster ride between blissfuloptimism and dark despair. Given the standard of their club rugby they have cause to be deeply dismayed by the events in Paris last weekend. The exodus of their top players to the lusher pastures south of the border cannot long be forestalled.

If clubs are to pay players there are probably only three in England capable of sustaining even the most modest payments, and one, Northampton, is incarcerated in the Second Division. Bath and Leicester are the others, and not for the first time they start the season as the holders of the major domestic trophies.

Leicester's support, organisation and direction are second to none, which makes John Allen's resignation as secretary all the more regrettable. He is the first major casualty of the International Board's decision last week, although he will assuredly not be the last. Nevertheless, Leicester have the largest and most vibrant membership in England, the best stewardship and in Tony Russ one of the most astute coaches. Yet, since the departure of Hare, Cusworth, Dodge and Woodward, they have symbolised the English attitude, pursuing and perfecting the defensive tactics which have become deeply ingrained in the players' psyches and with which the game here has become so closely identified.

They have a youthful and supremely athletic front five, a flanker in Neil Back who, in this observer's view, has a box-office allure matched only by Jeremy Guscott, and two international wingers. Yet their assault on the championship, admirable though it was in many respects, was laboured and predictable. They won a title without creative flair at half-back or midfield, and there can be no more damning indictment of the domestic game.

Even Bath, in their fitful progress towards another Pilkington Cup, fell short of the standards they had set in previous seasons and were conspicuously unsuccessful in taking advantage of Simon Geoghegan's unquenchable enthusiasm on the wing. Mike Catt's decision to play at fly-half is very probably the right one in view of his disappointing World Cup performances at full-back. Like Rob Andrew, he has become a devout disciple of Dave Alred, and within two weeks of his return from South Africa he was organising additional tuition from the master kicker. Catt is undeniably the genuine article and could make all the difference to Bath's back play, although doubts remain about the potency of the pack since the retirement of Jon Hall and the advancing years of loyal servants such as Nigel Redman.

For too long the First Division has been overpopulated by teams lacking any ambition beyond a place in the elite. Gloucester, blighted by petty internal discord and prisoners of an archaic selection policy and blinkered tactics, have contributed disappointinglylittle for a club of their standing and resources. Ditto Bristol, and, if we need repeat it, Harlequins.

If there are hopes that attitudes here will change, they must rest with clubs such as Wasps and Sale. Both were uncompromisingly committed to playing a game that was exhilarating and enterprising. Wasps possess some of the most richly promising young talent in the country, but in order to convince the doubters they must come first. Third in the league and second in the cup last season, highlycommendable though it was, will do nothing to alter hardened opinion.

On the other hand, while Wasps and those of similar philosophy have manifestly failed to influence closed minds in the past, it is possible that the paramount need to attract and entertain the paying customer in rugby's new age might prove to be a more powerfully persuasive force in the future. But not, I fear, in time to enliven this season.