Players wise to resist call of the country

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Anyone whose sporting vi- sion extends beyond the roof-tops would agree that international competition adds a vital dimension to our enjoyment of major games. It is the icing on the cake, the sugar on the bun, the jam on the bread and butter. But it isn't the cake, nor is it the bun and it is not, most definitely, the bread and butter.

The staple diet of the true aficionado is that which feeds us week by week, which nourishes us with a constant source of interest and excitement and which carries us through the darkest hours. Anything else is froth, lovely to look at, delightful to taste but not the stuff that makes real addicts.

If you want to locate one particular reason why we have grown to doubt our proficiency at the games we created it is the frequently abysmal showing of our international teams. We must doubt how accurately they represent our domestic standards and place a bigger emphasis on the strength of our clubs or, in cricket, of our counties.

We must be grateful to 42 members of the England international rugby squad for reminding us, however unwittingly, of this basic truth last week by neglecting to turn up for an English training session as a gesture of solidarity with their clubs. Far from being the mutinous and unpatriotic action that many condemned it to be, this was a calculated statement of their priorities by a group of responsible young men.

The nation's newest professional sportsmen, so new some still have to study the opening instructions on their wage-packets, elected to start as they mean to proceed by pledging first loyalty to their clubs. Considering how important international rugby is to their individual status and earning capacity, this took courage, but it was vital in these pioneering days for a few ground rules to be firmly set in place.

Their defiance, plus that of the clubs during the previous week, would have done more to concentrate the minds of the warring unions and send them scurrying for an armistice than any amount of what passes for statesmanship in the power-carpeted committee rooms. You need no more than a glance around at other sports to see the dangers of allowing international considerations to outweigh all others. Since the governing bodies can earn sums of increasing vastness from staging international matches, it is in their interests to put on as many as possible. It is doubtful, however, if such a policy is in the interests of anyone else.

Last weekend will be best remembered in England and Wales for the rugby season that kicked off in the middle of a club rebellion. But there was probably more significance in the major football stadiums throughout Britain being left empty by the demands of the qualifying rounds of the 1996 World Cup. It would require considerable boldness to question the right of the World Cup to stop all other football traffic particularly after Euro 96 was so successfully staged in England.

But for the Premiership season to get off to such a rousing and fascinating start and then to be interrupted after only three games by the quality of internationals we saw last weekend is ludicrous. I made this point before the weekend but it appears even stronger after it. The League of Wales was cancelled on the Saturday to allow the Welsh to concentrate entirely on Wales playing San Marino. It would have been more interesting if they'd been playing Dan Marino.

San Marino would struggle in the Dr Martens League so why waste a valuable Saturday, and prime time television, showing a meaningless 6-0 victory? Why aren't the San Marinos, the Liechtensteins, the Faroes and all the other small countries asked to play a pre-qualifying round? Money is the reason. If the lost city of Atlantis was ever discovered you may depend that Fifa would whip them straight into the draw for the following World Cup.

England's game in Moldova was not that much more of an entrancing spectacle. For this we missed a Premiership weekend? For this we had to forego another portion of Ravanelli? We've several more of these blank weekends to endure this season for the sake of a little more thoughtful planning.

What has happened in cricket should signal the danger. Test cricket is so dominant we forget we've got a Country Championship which contains some very good teams if we could only see them outside a one-day context. Rugby should take particular heed. Others may have better regional, divisional and provincial set-ups but we've got the best clubs. They provide the only foundation that will lift our international rugby standards.

We should praise the clubs and the players for insisting they should be given the opportunity to do so.

FOR the launch of the 25th annual edition of the Rothmans Rugby Union Yearbook last week, Fran Cotton, manager of the British Lions, was invited to pick a World XV from players who've starred in the last quarter-century.

Cotton, a former England forward of great repute, offered this team as his considered choice: JPR Williams (Wales); Gerald Davies (Wales), Danie Gerber (South Africa), Mike Gibson (Ireland), Jonah Lomu ( New Zealand); Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards (Wales); Graham Price (Wales), Sean Fitzpatrick (New Zealand, capt), Roy McLoughlin (Ireland), John Eales (Australia), Gary Whetton (New Zealand), Ian Kirkpatrick (New Zealand), Mervyn Davies (Wales), Michael Jones (New Zealand).

You will notice the absence of any Scotsman, any Frenchman and, more amazingly, any Englishman. You will also notice the presence of six Welshmen - indeed there are more Welsh representatives than from any other country.

It is probably no more than a co-incidence that within hours of Cotton's selection being announced, England reached a settlement in their long battle with the other home unions. Was it the realisation that if the most fiercely patriotic of Englishmen could find no room for his countrymen in such a team, there were no grounds for the RFU commandeering the bulk of Sky's pounds 87m for the Five Nations? I put it forward as no more than a theory.

AT THE stroke of the 12th sending off of Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones last Wednesday night began a delicious little cameo that has kept the tabloids amused for days. The offence which made him a founder member of the dirty dozen club was a wild tackle on Darren Anderton of Spurs.

Jones complained afterwards that his famed self-control slipped from him after Anderton had spat at him. Anderton confessed that he did spit but only for natural reasons. Jones happened to walk into the projectile. Demanding justice, Jones wants the FA to come to his aid. "You don't spit at human beings," he ranted in the Daily Mirror. "I was up early on Wednesday morning rounding up cows on my farm. They behaved better than Anderton."

I doubt if this evidence is admissable. If I was member of the Vinnie Jones herd the prospect of getting kicked would put all thoughts of spitting at him out of my mind. Cows are not that mad.