Rugby: He does not want to clutter up the England squad with players who are superior to those he has nurtured over the years

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The Independent Online
One of the most striking aspects of what is already a remarkable season is the impact which rugby league players have made. Sometimes they are players who have re-transferred their allegiance, such as Scott Quinnell of Richmond or (as he hopes will turn out to be the case permanently) Va'aiga Tuigamala of Wasps. Sometimes they are performers who had never played union regularly before this season and will shortly return to league, such as Gary Connolly of Harlequins. They have always transformed their club's play for the better.

There has been a curious reluctance to acknowledge this truth. After the first Wigan-Bath match in the summer, followers of union said that of course Wigan beat Bath at league. It was only to be expected. But Bath would beat Wigan at union, although maybe not so comprehensively.

Wigan's triumph in the Middlesex Sevens caused some people to revise their forecast, and to admit that perhaps Wigan might beat Bath after all at Twickenham. Superficially, however, things turned out as had been expected originally, with Bath winning and Wigan showing an unexpected ineptitude in the set-pieces, particularly the scrums.

But the superiority of the Wigan players individually, the backs at any rate, became evident in the second half and even more clear in the last quarter. The league players were stronger, faster, fitter and, above all, more creative. Jason Robinson could sidestep, swerve or jink round not just one opponent but several - an art some of us thought had gone with Gerald Davies.

This season, Robinson has been delighting the crowds at Bath, playing first on the wing and, more recently, at full-back. So has the other former Wigan player Henry Paul at centre. Both he and his brother, Robbie of Harlequins, are ineligible to play for England because they are New Zealanders. The same goes for Tuigamala.

But of eligible former league players, Jack Rowell, the England coach, has recalled only Jim Fallon of Richmond to the national squad. In my opinion, Jon Bentley of Newcastle, formerly of Halifax RL and before that of Sale (where, in 1988, he won three England caps), is at least as good a wing. On present form, Robinson, who is much younger, is the clear superior of both. So far, Martin Offiah of Bedford has not set the fields alight and has been troubled by a mysterious toe injury. Nevertheless, I have little doubt about the composition of the strongest English three-quarter line: Robinson, Connolly, Will Carling and Offiah.

Offiah has already said he is free to play for England. There may be doubts about how free Robinson is. Certainly Connolly is due to go back north in the new year. But if Wigan will release him, there is no legal reason why he should not play for England in the Five Nations. Why does not Rowell try to exercise his persuasive skills, for which he is apparently well known?

The answer, I am afraid, is that he does not want to. He does not want to clutter up his precious squad with players who are manifestly superior to those he has nurtured over the years. I agree - the advent of Robinson, Connolly and Offiah would undoubtedly be hard on Jon Sleightholme, Jeremy Guscott, Phil de Glanville, Tony Underwood and Adedayo Adebayo. But life is full of such hardships. They are not on that account injustices.

Kevin Bowring of Wales does not have this luxury of talent at his disposal. He should welcome the former league players. Yet he also is approaching them with the apprehension of an old man confronted by a nubile bride. So far, only Scott Gibbs of Swansea has been fully readmitted to the fold, with David Young of Cardiff and Richard Webster of Bath hovering on the fringes.

It is evident that Wales' best centre combination is Gibbs with Allan Bateman, who is playing brilliantly for Richmond, outside him. Scott Quinnell of the same club will presumably be back at No 8 once his payment problems have been settled.

The best Welsh back five would then be: Gareth Llewellyn (Harlequins), Craig Quinnell (Richmond), Paul Moriarty (Swansea), Scott Quinnell (Richmond), Richard Webster (Bath). Bowring, the victim of Welsh parochialism as much as of anti-league prejudice, is even less likely than Rowell to do the right thing.

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