In the effort to turn Newcastle into a First Division club, Rob Andrew is assembling a veritable United Nations of rugby

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The Independent Online
Just before the England-Ireland match, Dick Best wrote that if the Irish selectors were to behave rationally, they would hold their training sessions at London Irish rather than in Dublin. He didn't mean the London Irish club would have a disproportionate number of players in the national side, but that more of them would be playing in the Courage First Division - and so it would be easier for all concerned to meet at Sunbury rather than across the Irish Sea.

That is clearly the way things are going, as much for Scottish and Welsh players as for Irish. In the effort to turn Newcastle into a First Division club, Rob Andrew is assembling a veritable United Nations of rugby. Northampton have playing for them, in the backs, not only Jonathan Bell of Ireland but Gregor Townsend and Michael Dods of Scotland, together with Craig Moir, who is qualified for Wales. Arwel Thomas, the Welsh outside-half until Neil Jenkins made his reappearance, plays for Bristol.

Keith Wood, of Ireland, who was considered the best young hooker in the world until he was suddenly dropped, is off to Harlequins, along with Gareth Llewellyn of Wales. Wasps have lured Glyn Llewellyn also from Neath, who won nine Welsh caps in 1990-91, and Matthew Lewis from Bridgend, who may - who knows? - win many Welsh caps in the future.

However, if Lewis and others like him are to receive fair play, the Welsh selectors will have to change their traditional attitude. There are signs of such a change in the initial choice of Bristol's Thomas. But in the past, Welsh players who were turning out for English clubs were virtually ignored unless they were appearing for a university, hospital or service side or, of course, for London Welsh. Indeed, there used to be an understanding, or so it was said, that if a player was able to appear for London Welsh but chose some other English club instead, he would be ignored by the Welsh selectors. If this was the case, incidentally, I fail to see how Geoff Windsor-Lewis of Richmond could have won two caps in 1960.

Jeff Young played not only for Harrogate but also for London Welsh and the RAF - and anyway his uncle was a selector. Ron Jones turned out briefly for Coventry, while Dai Davies played solely for the Somerset Police, as John Robins did for Birkenhead Park. Before the war, Claude Davey and Wilfred Wooller both appeared for Sale, though they were more strongly associated in the public mind with their Welsh clubs, respectively Swansea and Cardiff.

The Scots, by contrast, have a more cosmopolitan attitude. Hamish Keith of Wasps and Micky Grant of Harlequins went unpenalised for not playing for London Scottish. So I could go on, but it would be tedious. The Welsh have always thought that the only clubs worthy of serious consideration were Cardiff, Llanelli, Newport and Swansea, with one or two others enjoying periods of intermittent prosperity. The Scots have been prepared to cast their net more widely. The Irish, separated by the sea and by a selection system which seems to consist of a perpetual series of inter-provincial trial matches, have been more like the Welsh, though quite without the Welsh's conceit.

That conceit is, after the buffeting of the past decade, a poor, bedraggled thing, which is mostly to the good. In the past the danger to Welsh rugby was the northern league. The Courage First Division is now set to replace the league. The professionalisation of rugby union means that the players will go where the money is. And most of the money is in England - though few of us would have predicted that Saracens would turn out to be better heeled than Wasps, or Newcastle than Bath.

There is, however, one important difference. If Scott Gibbs or Richard Webster went north, he was lost to rugby union. When Gareth Llewellyn goes to Harlequins, he will still be available for selection for the Welsh team. The Welsh Rugby Union foolishly tried to prevent him from going to The Stoop on a technicality. But it now seems to have relinquished the attempt. It would almost certainly have come to grief in one or other of the European Courts.

Likewise, the Rugby Football Union would be wise to give up completely its attempt to limit the number of those insultingly and inaccurately labelled "overseas" players in the First Division. I think it probably has done so. The tide of commercialism has already overflown petty English nationalism. This is all to the good too. Club power is fine. But I do not want to see British Isles rugby in the position where countries are dictated to by clubs over the composition - and the training periods - of the national sides. In other words, I do not want to see rugby go the way of football.

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