Old relics will not be rushed

Chris Rea believes the RFU are right to take their time in adjusting to change
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE has never been a week like it. Will Carling was given an extension of service as captain at the same time as England bade a fond and probably final farewell to Dean Richards and Brian Moore. Jonathan Davies came home again to Wales, but after his Border butchery in Melrose and Jed-Forest Rob Andrew is as welcome in Scotland as the Duke of Cumberland.

And PS: the pounds 20m European tournament was launched to a fanfare of indifference. There was hardly a report worthy of the name, let alone television coverage, and with little room for manoeuvre in the ITV schedules it is likely that the tournament will be given scant attention by the big companies until the latter stages. Even then it will be screened in those hours when only insomniacs and night-shift workers can watch it.

Once again the Rugby Football Union is cast in the role of the villain by those countries who have enthusiastically but prematurely given their support. That a European competition is desirable - essential even - in the new regime is not in doubt. The RFU's concern, however, is as much to do with the format as it is with the indecent haste with which it has been organised - although they, like almost everyone else, must be secretly congratulating Vernon Pugh and his organising committee for managing to sell an event as half-baked as this one. It was a brilliant piece of negotiation.

There have been the usual charges of sour grapes levelled against the RFU, their refusal to participate in this first year and reluctance to commit themselves for the next being interpreted as pique because they were beaten to the starting post. The fact is, as the other countries know, there is no show without England and, having been thwarted in their efforts to get the major share of the television money in the last round of domestic negotiations with the BBC, the RFU are determined not to miss out again.

This time there will be no capitulation, no negotiation. England will participate on their terms or not at all, and it is hard to imagine the competition surviving without them, certainly not at its present level of funding. The RFU's concern reaches beyond the format and timing of this particular tournament.

While other countries have rushed to embrace professionalism, the RFU are proceeding with extreme caution, beginning and, for this season at least, ending with the national squad. Beneath that level the game remains strictly amateur. That is the RFU's stance and it is one they are perfectly entitled to take, however much they may still be perceived by the world at large as a fossilised group of flatulent relics. At its historic meeting in September when the International Board voted for an open game, the decisions on when and how to introduce the changes were left to the individual unions. The RFU, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, decided to delay the implementation of professionalism below international level until next season.

That is their legal right although if, as seems increasingly likely, they find themselves face to face with Sir John Hall in the courtroom over the 120-day rule,the RFU can take little comfort from the fact that in their previous rugby judgments, the judiciary have shown a wilful disregard for the laws.

The very idea then that players with jobs to go to the next day should be haring across Europe playing midweek matches directly conflicts with the RFU's much-abused moratorium, although this directive has no doubt proved a blessed relief to Jack Rowell, who has problems enough with injury and poor form. His England team to play South Africa in a fortnight came as no great surprise. Those who believe that he has taken three steps forward by dropping Moore and Richards and by installing Mike Catt at fly-half are probably balanced by those whose view it is that he has taken two steps back with the reintroduction of Bath's Jon Callard and Andy Robinson.

Both have been performing impressively in a team whose supremacy has so far been unchallenged this season. It has therefore not been possible to see how either of them might cope in adversity although the comments in the Sudbury clubhouse after Bath's victory over Wasps that no one can kill a ball quite as effectively as Robinson, hardly augurs well for England's plans for expansion. Certainly size no longer seems to be an issue, and Neil Back, whose most serious fault this season is that he has been trying too hard, must have concluded that, like Paul Hull, he has no part in the plans of the present management.

In the absence of Moore and Richards England will require a leader to emerge from their pack. There was a time when Tim Rodber was considered captaincy material but those hopes sank with Northampton's disappearance into the Second Division. Jason Leonard, the Cockney once accused of accumulating caps in the comfort zone of blissful inactivity, is now the senior pro in more senses than one and may be the man to assume the mantle of responsibility and ruthlessness laid down by two of England's most influential forwards. Whether or not he is tactically astute enough is another matter but if, as a result of the omission of Richards and Moore, Leonard is propelled to a prominence he has never sought and one which in the eyes of many he has never quite deserved, now is the time to prove he is the man for the job.