Professional era will show profit on pitch

David Llewellyn looks forward to the Courage League season, which starts on Saturday
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The Independent Online
This is the season that everyone - players, coaches and administrators - wanted. It has long been argued that English club rugby has been holding back the development of the national side, allowing the Southern Hemisphere countries to leave everyone else earthbound, like so many spectators at the Cape Kennedy of rugby union, watching while they launch themselves to other galaxies.

Yet in 1987 the inception of the Courage League was hailed as the way forward, the base from which a stronger, more competitive national side could be constructed. Nine short years later, we are back where we started, only this time there are a number of telling differences.

First time round the Leagues were a one-off affair, so that each match was more like a Cup tie. Lose a couple and your season was over. The introduction of home and away helped greatly, for a time, until it was realised that the number of games was acting against the best interests of club and country. Players were drained before the season's end, and interest waned as the few left the many in their wake.

Last August came the first rumbling eruption, which left blazered traditionalists quaking in committee rooms around the country. The International Rugby Football Board acceded to the inevitable and allowed the game to go open. That was endorsed at the IB's full meeting in Tokyo a month later, by which time clubs were discussing ways to move into the professional era; the governing bodies were not so nimble of mind. Some of them still have not caught on to what is happening in the game.

Now the clubs have a chance to show them. The intensity of competition off the field - collecting backers and sponsors, players and grounds - will be exceeded only by that on it. The most obvious difference between the old amateur and new professional eras will be the presence of rugby league players. There is a fear that the two codes will soon become scrambled in these play-for-pay days, but right now the Northern hordes can only add to union.

One thing remains the same. There is going to be a huge demand on players in terms of the number of matches this season, especially for international players and those in successful clubs who reach the later stages of the Pilkington Cup and the European competition.

Clubs need as many matches as can be fitted in to a lengthened season in order to generate cash through gate money, advertising and marketing; they will also want their money's worth from their employees - the players. But money's worth does not mean players turning out, rain or shine, night after night to play the muddied fool. They need a break, to be kept fresh and essentially injury free and to that end larger squads are needed.

Spread the load has to be the message, and if it achieves nothing else perhaps the new era will teach the conservative element, who dislike changing a winning team, that the squad mentality has to be adopted.

The intake of electrifying talent such as Martin Offiah, Henry Paul, Jason Robinson and Va'aiga Tuigamala will bring in the crowds, initially at least, but it will also add a dimension to the game. As will the presence of so many overseas players such as Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella, David Corkery, the Llewellyn brothers and the New Zealander John Mitchell. Young players will be able to learn from these incomers.

If the England coach, Jack Rowell, goes through with his ideal, then some of those league players may find their way into the national side at the expense of worthy individuals, rising stars who have worked hard to reach the fringes of international rugby union. England may have a "lost generation" of such players, but overall the top level should benefit and see England, in a short time, beginning to compete with the likes of New Zealand, whose awesome display in the Test series against South Africa has simply served to underline how far behind the Northern Hemisphere is lagging.

As to the money in the club game, there are the haves - mostly down South, with the honourable exception of Newcastle - and the have nots, chiefly in the North. But money cannot buy success, soccer has proved that. Just as individual players will lose out in the fight for team places, so some backers of clubs will see their projects suffer setbacks. But not one of the money men is a philanthropist. This is not patronage. They see rugby as a part of the changing sociological face of the country as we move deper into a leisure-orientated world. Backing the clubs is merely sowing an acorn. There will be financial oaks to fell later if things go the way these visionaries expect them to.

As a sign of things to come the moves by Wasps to Queen's Park Rangers' Loftus Road ground and Saracens to the more modest surroundings of Enfield Town indicate an intention and indeed a trend to all-purpose sporting collectives; Bristol have worked it the other way and are to generate cash by renting their Memorial Ground to Bristol Rovers.

As to who will win what is, potentially, one of the most exciting Courage Clubs' Championships - that has to be the game of rugby. It is likely that the same old names will be there at the finish; success, after all, breeds success. New names will join the giants but this time round there will be little need to look any further than Bath, Leicester, Wasps and Harlequins, the gang of four, who have between them won everything since 1984.

Rugby union's new Foreign Legion

Philippe Sella, the former French international centre, complements Saracens' back line

Frano Botica, Castleford's New Zealand outside-half, steps out for Orrell

New Zealand-born Va'aiga Tuigamala flying from Wigan to Wasps

Laurent Cabannes brings French polish from Paris to the Harlequins back row

Michael Lynagh, the Australian high flyer, backs Saracens Photographs: Allsport

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