Overriding national interest

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My sole wish for rugby union this year is that it is nothing like as wretched as last. 1996 was the annus horribilisimus in which no section of the game was left untarnished by opportunism, self-interest and rank bad management. Every possible mistake was made on the road to professionalism and recovery is likely to be as painful as it will be slow. Already, less than five months into the new era, the spectre of financial ruin is haunting many clubs, with all the hardship and suffering that will bring to those whose Saturday ale is now their daily bread and butter.

At the other end of the scale those clubs still awash with entrepreneurs' cash are shelling out crazy money on players whose best years are far behind them. Spend, spend, spend, and when the cupboard is bare there will be plenty more from moneybags Murdoch or the old farts at Twickenham.

We are told that the cost of bailing Epruc, the clubs' body, out of their financial mess will be at least pounds 1.3m. Now, the Rugby Football Union have done some daft things in their time and there are still those in high places who believe that Epruc have done a good job, but so long as there is a vestige of sanity at headquarters we may reasonably expect that hell will freeze over before the RFU pay a penny more than they have to to buy out this discredited organisation.

Epruc, as they have since their establishment, are living in a fool's paradise. That they are still living at all beggars belief. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I have always believed that trading whilst insolvent is a criminal offence. Yet Epruc, up to their ears in debt, are planning their reincarnation in Newco, the joint body which, it is proposed, will run the club game in England.

Once again the fortification of the strong at the expense of the weak and overall control will be back on the agenda. Plans are afoot for the top four clubs in the First Division of the Courage League to receive more than three times the amount of the other six and more than six times the figure allocated to clubs in the Second Division. With such a massive disparity the top four - and it is not too difficult to name them - would be able to form themselves into a self- perpetuating elite playing mainly in Europe with players culled from all over the world. It is a recipe for disaster.

But only last week I read that instead of vilifying the owner investors for driving the game to ruin, we should be falling on our knees in gratitude to those philanthropists for their vision of the future. Soon, apparently, the club game will be supplanting international rugby in the nation's affections, attracting the sort of crowds and commercial activity associated with the Premier League. What utter hogwash.

Manchester United, whose recently increased capacity of 55,000 at Old Trafford is already inadequate to cope with demand, have two Tesco-sized megastores within the ground and a permanent staff of 36 manning their telesales department. Their merchandising operation far outstrips the revenue from ticket sales. Football, even at the less rarefied levels, inhabits a different planet.

Yesterday, for the first time this season, Leicester, the best-supported rugby club in the land, had a full house at Welford Road. Of course, clubs like Saracens, Wasps and Harlequins have increased their support through their high-profile signings, but when you consider the lowly base from which they started it falls far below the minimum required to pay the spiralling wages.

If rugby is to be compared to any other sport in this country then it should be to cricket, which is also dependent for its survival upon the international game. But one of the principal reasons for cricket's decline is the power vested in the counties, which is so wholly disproportionate to their capacity to appeal to the wider audience. No one should doubt that the single biggest factor in the surge of interest in rugby in the Nineties has been England's success, which is without parallel in the country's history. Four championships, including three grand slams, in six years. On top of that a final and a semi-final in two World Cups.

By the same token there can be no question that should English rugby drop as alarmingly as cricket that interest will just as quickly dry up. There were ominous signs of unrest at Twickenham when the crowd became disenchanted as England laboured to beat Argentina.

The priority for all concerned therefore is to get England into shape in the short term for the forthcoming Five Nations' Championship and looking further ahead, for the World Cup. Thanks to television the sporting audience is far more knowledgeable and discerning than ever. They know when they are being conned and they don't like what they are seeing or what they are hearing from England. If there has been a closing of the gap between the club and international game in the past year it is because club rugby in England has risen an inch and international rugby has fallen a foot.

The day after England had murdered the Pumas by two points, the South Africans produced a supreme exhibition of how the game should be played against Wales in Cardiff. In their athleticism, team-work, dazzling individual flair as demonstrated by the incredible Joost van der Westhuizen, and, above all, in their support of each other, the Springboks were in a different league. In three years following their return to the international fold and sound thrashings by all the leading nations, South Africa rose to world champions. After three years with Jack Rowell in charge, England are still rebuilding. They remain without a balanced back row, an effective half-back combination and a plan. A serious faultline has developed in their threequarters and they are a long way off the pace in terms of individual skill. Admirable as their tight forwards are in their specialist areas, the all-round abilities of players like Kobus Weise, Mark Andrews, Ian Jones, Robin Brooke and Adrian Garvey are now basic requirements.

Despite the margin of their defeat by the Springboks, Wales stuck doggedly to their task and in the circumstances emerged with great credit. Some things they did extremely well, which prompts the thought that they could have a good Five Nations. If that says more about the state of play in Europe than it does about Wales, it should sound the shrillest of warnings for England and for English rugby.