Pledge to end fixture congestion

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The Independent Online
One of the most influential figures in European rugby yesterday announced a new bridge-building exercise between major northern hemisphere clubs and their respective governing bodies aimed at halting the game's downward slide into black comedy. Roger Pickering, the chief executive of the Five Nations Committee, said he expected a cross-border fixtures schedule to be agreed at a meeting later this month.

Pickering, who is also tournament director of the Heineken European Cup, was speaking as officials from Cardiff and Bath voiced their concerns over the fixture congestion that has already seen four important league games cancelled in England because of Test call-ups from Ireland and Scotland - a situation that is almost certain to be repeated three times in the next 10 weeks. John Hall, the Bath team manager, feared "massive disruption" at club level as the international season gets into full stride.

While Pickering accepted that the die had been cast for this season, he insisted that a new pan-European fixture structure would be in place in time for the start of the 1997-98 campaign.

"It's at the top of the agenda and representatives of the Five Nations Committee will meet with club officials from all five leading countries before the end of November to thrash this out," he said. "The fixtures for this season have already been agreed and it will be very difficult to change things at this stage, but by agreeing a structure for next season we can make it virtually impossible for these problems to arise again."

Importantly, Pickering acknowledged the primacy of European rugby over domestic fixtures, although he indicated that national competitions would continue to provide the backbone of activity in each country. Although a number of leading clubs want cross-border tournaments on a home and away basis next season, they are unlikely to get their way if the price is a diluted league programme.

Cardiff, who face Bath in a sell-out Heineken Cup quarter-final at the Arms Park on Saturday, are the latest club to be confronted with fixture difficulties; they play Sale in the Anglo-Welsh tournament tonight but will be forced to field a second-string side. "I think the rugby league clubs learned the lesson some time ago that one game a week is enough for anyone," the Cardiff coach, Terry Holmes, said. "It's unfortunate, but none of our first choice players will face Sale for obvious reasons."

Holmes could hardly be blamed for playing safe as he already has a number of injury concerns in advance of the Bath showdown, with their outside- half, Jonathan Davies, and the loose forward Emyr Lewis facing late fitness tests on rib and finger injuries respectively.

Bath are even more vulnerable on the casualty front; they have lost the experienced forwards Graham Dawe and Richard Webster to knocks suffered during last Saturday's defeat at Northampton and will almost certainly be denied the services of the former England lock, Nigel Redman. He is still struggling with a groin condition sustained during the victory over Dax three weeks ago.

n Italy have named a 21-man squad for their friendly against England at Twickenham on Saturday week. The back-rower Corrado Covi is recalled after a five-year absence while the captain, Massimo Cuttitta, has recovered from a thigh injury that forced him to miss last month's international against Australia.

ITALIAN SQUAD (v England, Twickenham, Saturday, 23 November): A Castellani, W Cristofoletto, I Francescato, L Manteri, D Scaglia, A Sgorlon, A Troncon, O Arancio, M Cuttitta, D Dominguez, C Orlandi, F Properzi Curti, S Bordon, A Scanavacca, M Ravazzolo, P Vaccari, A Barattin, C Covi, G Guidi, J Pertile, M Giovanelli.