Rugby Union: A week for the strong

David Llewellyn charts a turbulent chapter in the life of stoical Scottish
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The Independent Online
IT IS little short of miraculous that John Steele has not been carted away screaming in a straitjacket given the turbulence of the last 10 days in the life of London Scottish's director of rugby.

Slap bang in the middle of preparing his side for a Cup tie at Kendal, and waiting for the overdue arrival of twins, the stoical Steele was hit with the news that Bristol had stepped in with an offer to buy out London Scottish and take their place in the Allied Dunbar Premiership One.

"I had some idea that there was something in the air towards the end of the week," Steele recalled. "Then last Friday the chairman [Tony Tiarks] spoke to me unofficially. I didn't think then that anyone thought things would progress that quickly." In fact, Bristol, beaten by London Scottish in the play-offs for a place in the top flight last season, had already mooted the notion of a merger last May. Nothing came of it until the week before last.

Then last Saturday, just 24 hours before that tough Tetley's Bitter Cup tie in Cumbria, the players were told. Just as well, since that was also the day when the reports of the proposal appeared in the press.

"Naturally," Steele said, "everyone becomes a little bit nervous for the situation of the group as a whole and then for their individual position. But contracts have to be honoured."

Between learning of it on their way to Kendal on Monday, when Tiarks addressed the whole club in a lengthy meeting, Scottish scraped into the fifth round by just five points. Not that Steele was blaming the off-field situation for that. "Once the initial feelings had gone," he said, "the mood has been very good. The players realised that this could be a very positive thing. We just could not, indeed cannot, go on from month to month asking investors to put their hands in their pockets come pay day. This is not a sustainable business, the way things stand right now."

But he conceded: "It was a little more difficult, a little more emotional, for the longer- term players, people such as Paul Burnell, who have been at the club for some time now. I have been here for six years myself, and yes, it was hard to accept initially that the name of London Scottish would not be continuing in the top flight, especially after so much work had been put in to re-establishing the club in the First Division over the last three years or so.

"The first thing that hit me was that this group of players and the spirited staff around me, who have all put so much in to the club and have become such a tight-knit team, were going to be broken up. The chairman has said that there is no intention of breaking up the squad and my understanding is that Bristol have only a fraction of the contracted Premiership players that we have. I would therefore envisage London Scottish players making up the bulk of the new squad."

To add to the worries, an item of news on Tuesday, unconnected with the takeover, swung the spotlight back on Scottish when it was announced that the Rugby Football Union intended looking into a clamp-down on overseas players with English or EC passports and loose European connections. The Exiles, the report claimed erroneously , have 21 on their books. In fact it is a mere 11.

Tuesday was the day that Bristol's chief executive, Nick de Scossa, announced that the deal was expected to be finalised. The following day everyone breathed again, both clubs, it appeared, were exploring "the practical consequences" of the deal. At least it meant that Scottish would be honouring their Premiership One match at Leicester.

Then on Thursday came a suggestion, bubbling up through the rumour, anxiety and speculation that a rival bid was being put together by four prominent Scottish businessmen. While he is too careful to admit it, that could be the perfect solution as far as Steele is concerned. "The fact that the tree has been shaken means other things may come out now," he said. "If someone connected with this club feels strongly enough that they decide to put money in then I am sure the Scottish board would look at it.

"My one big disappointment is the Scottish Rugby Union saying that if Tony Tiarks could not make a profit then no one could, so they did not want to step in. The SRU do not make a profit from the Super Districts, who are not even successful in playing terms. But if the SRU had stepped in with some kind of financial package for London Scottish it would have been a lifeline for Scottish rugby, because they would have players turning out regularly in the best and most competitive club rugby environment in Britain, which can only be of benefit to the national team."

Nothing is likely to happen overnight, especially in the light of Friday's development when Twickenham stirred from its torpor over the whole issue long enough to demand details in writing from both clubs of any proposals that either have to merge with or acquire another club.

Meanwhile Steele, whose own future remains clouded in the event of the merger, must wait on his wife Sophie and the impending production of those reluctant twins. It has been quite some week for him.

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