Rugby: Rugby should avoid creating artificial and meaningless competitions simply to try to make money. The extra audience is not there

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The last player to be capped for England at both cricket and rugby was, I think, Mike Smith of Warwickshire. The most recent rugby internationals to play county cricket as well were Alastair Hignell, of Gloucestershire, Peter Squires, who was on Yorkshire's books, and Dusty Hare, who was attached to Nottinghamshire. The pluralists were a dying breed long before the advent of professionalism in rugby, both because of the commercialisation of cricket and because of the increasing pressure in rugby even before it became professional.

From now on it will become not merely difficult but impossible for anyone to excel at both sports. The rugby season goes on into May. It begins again on 23 August. It can only be a matter of time before the game imitates football more closely still, with the season kicking off at the beginning of that month. Some people are already suggesting that, to obviate the end-of-season fixture congestion, the game should continue all the year round.

Oddly enough, a similar suggestion was made in very different circumstances by the great South African No 8 Tommy Bedford (who today would be considered on the small side even for a No 7). Like most players from his part of the world, Bedford did not care for the wind and the rain, to say nothing of the snow and the frost. Playing at the beginning of the year, he used to say, was a misery. Besides, fixtures were liable to be disrupted by cancellations due to the state of the pitch.

Why, accordingly, not take a rest in January and February, and return for two of the summer months? It was not as if our summers over here were too hot for rugby. On the contrary: they were usually just right. That was Bedford's view.

It is one for which I have a good deal of sympathy. As any wing will tell you, even in these more strenuous and active times for players in that position, it is a great fallacy to conclude that you get warm simply by turning out.

But the Bedford solution is not the one embraced by the advocates of year-round rugby. They would certainly play in January and February as well. Mind you, they do not actively want perpetual rugby. Rather, they see it as the only solution to the present end-of-season pile-up.

There is, it is fair to add, a commercial reason also. Clubs want to maximise attendance to help pay the wage bills. We have seen the same process in operation in cricket, where we have a Sunday limited-over league which is unnecessary, and two other limited-over competitions where only one would have been enough. The same happens in football, where the League and the Cup are supplemented by other competitions, both domestic and European.

I ought to make clear at this point that the extra European dimension in rugby is a development I welcome unreservedly. Supporters and players in England and Wales alike are, I know, now looking at the league tables anxiously calculating whether their clubs will qualify for the European competitions next season. In this, their first season, they were a great success.

That was no thanks to the television companies, which first pulled out of their deal, leaving the initial matches uncovered, and handing over coverage of the final stages to the BBC. All the television authorities made a miscalculation of public interest and, apart from this, demonstrated a lack of concern for their public responsibilities. Will Wyatt, the head of BBC Television, happens to be an enthusiastic rugby follower. I hope he does better in Europe this time.

The European fixtures are always interesting and often entertaining. What rugby should avoid is the path already trodden by football and cricket: creating artificial and meaningless competitions simply to try to make money. For that is precisely what they will fail to do. The extra audience is simply not there, and the audience that is already there will become bored and stay away. Exactly the same audience applies to year-round rugby irrespective of whether new competitions are added or not.

What rugby should be looking at is shedding some competitions, the divisional championship for instance. Though Fran Cotton, for one, has an unaccountable regard for the lacklustre occasions these matches turn out to be, they are now a nuisance and an irrelevance.

I am, however, sure of one thing. I have no intention of writing a year- round rugby column. The 23rd of August will (DV) see me at The Oval watching England and Australia. And after a holiday in France I hope to return to this space.

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