Goose that laid the powder keg

Professionalism hit British rugby this year, bringing internecine warfare, a Test epidemic and an invasion of foreign players. Chris Hewett says the game must move forward in 1997 to survive
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The Independent Online
Rugby's golden goose has proved an elusive creature in 1996, a survival specialist with an instinct for self-preservation far more acute than anything displayed by Gerald Davies or David Campese in their heydays. It has been hunted relentlessly by obsolescent committee men, cheque book- wielding business barons and avaricious players who appear to have studied economics under Walter Mitty. Formidable enemies indeed, yet the goose continues to draw breath.

But for how much longer? It is astonishing that domestic rugby still basks in the warm glow of an unprecedented boom in popularity given the best efforts of those at the summit of the British game - and the English one in particular - to dash it to smithereens on the twin altars of petty power-mongering and grotesque greed.

Even now, England's senior clubs are girding their loins for a fierce argument with the Rugby Football Union over the Courage League structure - not next season's structure, mark you, but this season's. The First Division protectionists want a 12-team top flight with two relegation slots while the governing body is pushing a 10-team arrangement under which no fewer than four clubs would wave good-bye to their precious elite status.

When the rival battalions finally strike a formal deal on the financial and broadcasting disputes that have dominated the headlines for 12 long months - the so-called negotiators from both sides hope to settle in January, although no one is prepared to say which January - the relegation issue will still be there, bubbling away underneath a facade of good fellowship and reconciliation.

Yet the real threat to rugby's development as a major spectator sport is overkill on the international stage. This is not a little local difficulty, like the RFU-Epruc (English Professional Rugby Union Clubs) rumpus in England, but a worldwide epidemic. So many Test matches are scheduled to be played in 1997 that there is a serious danger of reducing to nothing the sense of occasion that has always been the single most important foundation stone of the sport's mass appeal.

Ridiculously, the International Board has sanctioned no fewer than 46 full Tests involving the traditional Big Eight nations - the four home countries, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia - during the coming calendar year, and that number is likely to leave 50 behind once each country has finalised its plans. It amounts to a major Test each and every weekend, enough to sap the interest levels of the most fanatical rugby follower.

It does not end there. When you include the stronger second division countries in this morass of activity - Canada, Argentina, Italy and the Pacific Islands - the total number of matches approaches the 70 mark. Suddenly the golden goose begins to resemble one of those force-fed unfortunates on the farms of southern France.

England, alone, will play Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and New Zealand again on successive Saturdays between 15 November and 6 December, a fact that has stirred up a degree of renewed hostility from fellow members of the Five Nations committee who have yet to forgive Twickenham fully for its self-serving duplicity in negotiating a unilateral broadcasting deal last April.

Jack Rowell, the national coach, repeatedly insists that if his side is to mount a meaningful challenge to the superpowers of the southern hemisphere, it needs to play them on a regular basis. Is four times in four weeks regular enough for you, Jack?

The pitfalls of excess were nakedly apparent as recently as last month, when Scotland failed lamentably to sell out Murrayfield for the visit of John Eales and his Wallabies. Even more disturbingly, the Welsh fell short of full houses at the Arms Park for both the Test with the Aussies - the game in which the home-grown hero Jonathan Davies returned to international colours - and the match against South Africa, one of the two most marketable outfits on the planet.

Quite how many pitch up at Cardiff for next week's match with the United States is anyone's guess but few are likely to be knocked unconscious in the box office frenzy.

Global village culture is much in evidence at club level, too, as Rowell is finding to his cost as he searches high and low for English-qualified talent.

It is a well-documented fact that the outside-half cupboard is virtually bare: of the 12 first-choice stand-offs in the First Division, only five are available for red rose selection (and one of those, Mike Catt of Bath, is a South African by birth). Given that Leicester and Harlequins are about to draft in Joel Stransky, a Springbok, and Thierry Lacroix, a Frenchman, respectively, the options will soon decrease by another 40 per cent.

Further examination reveals that in at least two other key positions, middle jumper and open-side flanker, the choice is very nearly as limited. On an average Courage League weekend, 50 per cent or more of those performing in each position will be foreign imports.

It does not take an astro-physicist to work out that the situation cannot be allowed to continue unchecked, and if the new management company about to take over the day-to-day running of senior club rugby in England has any sense at all, it will make this issue its No 1 priority.

For all that, there are encouraging signs that the club game here is flourishing under the demands of professionalism. Rugby is more popular in London and the Midlands than ever before - just look at the crowds at The Stoop, Loftus Road, Welford Road and Franklins Gardens - while Newcastle, bankrolled by Sir John Hall but made flesh with impressive single-mindedness by Rob Andrew, are emerging as a real power in the land.

With Sale also cutting plenty of ice on the other side of the Pennines, the northern outlook is brighter than many feared when salary packets first replaced boot money.

As in all business ventures, quality control is of paramount importance: for instance, the Heineken European Cup, the wild success story of the season, requires careful nurturing while, conversely, the almost unimaginably pointless Anglo-Welsh tournament deserves a thorough soaking with weedkiller. It is of no conceivable use to anyone, so get rid of it.

This has been a bitterly frustrating year of wasted opportunities, undermined by bad faith and endless procrastination. In 1997 British rugby needs to break the logjam with sharp minds, quick wits and, above all, an injection of energy.

If that proves beyond the badged and blazered buffers of the four home unions, sack the load of them and headhunt a couple of old All Blacks to run the show. If we are going to take up residence in the global village, let's make it work for us rather than against us.

The coach

BOB DWYER - Australian World Cup-winning coach, now at league leaders Leicester.

"I've spent just half the season in English rugby but I believe the biggest problem is that the demands on players in the professional era are nowhere near big enough. If you're being paid pounds 70,000 for a season's performances for England, you should be in tip-top shape, but it strikes me that some of those at the most lucrative end of the game are well short of that. My other concern is that people here misunderstand how good a player needs to be to perform effectively at Test level; some of the current England squad are not within cooee, as we say back home. The sound assessment of talent is absolutely essential in the development of a strong national side, as is mental and physical conditioning. If you get that right, you will go a long way because everything else is here on your doorstep - when I was a young coach, England was a citadel of physical education. You have heaps of information at your fingertips, but you really have to improve the application of that information."

The fan

MARTIN GOULD - Wasps supporter.

"My main concerns about the game in England are twofold; that the influx of foreign players while very exciting for the supporter, is beginning to have a negative effect on the development of our own youngsters and that the paying spectator is taking far too much of a hiding in the pocket.

On the first point, my own club much shoulder a share of the blame like every other - we have two Scots in our second row, a Western Samoan and a Canadian in our back division. At the start of the season, Alex King couldn't get a game at outside-half because Gareth Rees had been brought in. Had it not been for early injuries, Alex might not be in the England squad now. The obsession with expensive imports is dangerous and limits will have to be imposed.

From the supporter's point of view, pounds 15 at the turnstiles is hitting us hard. Soccer fans may be used to paying that sort of money but the sudden leap in prices to finance players' inflated wage bills really does stick in the craw."

The player

JON CALLARD - Bath and England full-back.

"The obvious source of discomfort at the way our game is going is the influx of foreign talent. I am perfectly aware of its short-term value - players like Michael Lynagh, Joel Stransky and Inge Tuigamala and the rest can only raise the profile of domestic rugby and if that brings new supporters through the turnstiles, all well and good.

But in the long term, what good will it do us as a rugby-playing nation? Very little, I'm afraid. There is an awful lot of home-grown talent out there that needs to be developed and exposure at the top level is the key element in that. It would be self-defeating if good young players were forced to perform at a lower level - or give up the game altogether - because their progress was being blocked by big names from overseas.

On another note, I would like to see us experiment with two referees as a means of cracking down on offences like offside and killing the ball. It is still too easy for one side to play entirely negatively and get away with it."

The administrator

MIKE SMITH - chief executive, Saracens.

"The first thing we have to do to ensure our future is forget our immediate past. We have to put last year's in-fighting behind us, encourage the personalities involved to draw a line under the conflict and get on with building up for the Five Nations and, in the longer term, the 1999 World Cup.

The public perception of rugby was sky high until this season, and I think the difficulties between the clubs and the Rugby Football Union has affected gates both at domestic and international level. We cannot allow that situation to continue.

Unfortunately, the RFU and the clubs have been trying to run two separate businesses with the same raw materials in terms of players. Both sides need to maximise their earning potential but instead of agreeing a common approach, there has been division. We are now in the world of entertainment and many clubs, Saracens included, have taken that on board by improving facilities for players and supporters alike. It is all about developing the product and for that to happen, everyone must pull in the same direction."

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