Rugby union: A winter of intense pleasure

Mark Evans, the Saracens coaching director, says the greater the pressure the better
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The Independent Online
The sun beats down, the Ashes series is unfinished, the French have still to return to Paris and yet a new rugby season is upon us. Indeed, it is a moot point as to whether the old one ever ended - the months of June and July have been a treat for oval ball fanatics who have been able to gorge upon a diet of Lions, All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies. The Northern Hemisphere season now stretches from mid-August to mid-May with an obligatory summer tour for the elite international players.

It is a murderous schedule, and one which will inevitably create more injured and/or jaded players; but having said all that, the game still looks to have any number of exciting elements to look forward to as the season approaches.

The Lions win in South Africa was a marvellous fillip for the sport here and showed that the gap between ourselves and the best in the world can be closed. The type of play the tourists put together against their provincial opposition was outstanding and a number of clubs will attempt to replicate the 15-man handling style that so many people find attractive.

The Allied Dunbar Premiership will be fiercely competitive. Northampton, with five current Lions in their squad and the hemisphere's pre-eminent coach in charge, are only ninth favourites for the title. The bookies may have got it wrong (not very likely) but an increase in intensity is vital if we are to keep improving.

That is why the critics of the influx of foreign players have missed the point. England need to have their top players playing under pressure every week - easy games do not benefit anybody any more than a mediocre overall standard does. If a multinational element is needed to produce a high-level competition, then so be it. A strong English player will relish the challenge and it should also benefit the Celtic nations, who must maintain and improve their own standards if the Five Nations is to remain a meaningful competition.

Those who delight in the relative present weakness of Scotland and Ireland are being remarkably short-sighted. It benefits no one if a Northern Hemisphere duopoly of England and France continues to develop; in five years' time, 90 per cent of all British internationals will be playing in the Allied Dunbar Premiership or its equivalent and this should help the development of all the home nations at an international level.

It is for this reason that I am still not quite convinced about the merits of a European Cup competition. Undoubtedly it throws up some mouth-watering match-ups such as Bath versus Toulouse or Cardiff against Brive, but some of the group games do not exactly set the pulse racing. Just who is getting excited about Ulster facing Glasgow or Caledonia meeting Treviso?

If the politics could be taken out of it, then a European League would be a better alternative with clubs and/or provinces finding their own level. Otherwise there is a real possibility that the Allied Dunbar will become the European League by default.

One more ingredient will be needed before we can be confident of the game continuing on its present growth path - consistent and sympathetic refereeing. Here we come up against the English reluctance to bend a rule or a law even when common sense dictates that this would be the most sensible course of action. Our top referees are intelligent and thoughtful but are hampered by a lack of leadership. We need to decide upon the type of game we want and referee it accordingly.

Let's not worry too much about what they are doing in Australia or New Zealand and set some standards for ourselves which suit our audiences and conditions.

To my mind, this would include a re-introduction of rucking, a real contest for the ball at all set pieces and the onus being placed on the tackler to clear the tackle area quickly. However, it is not the detail but the principle that is important here - we must stop having to keep adjusting our approach from month to month as the season progresses. We should get an agreement and then stick to it.

One last thought - I notice that Saracens are 25-1 to win the Premiership at the moment. Get your money on now and do not say you weren't told.