Rugby Union: Absences make other parts grow stronger

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The Independent Online
IT MIGHT not be the best time to moan about foreigners when plane- loads of them are about to descend on us intent on taking the World Cup away. I will welcome them whole-heartedly and delight in watching them play. It's the ones they leave behind I'm worried about.

The England captain, Martin Johnson, has been complaining that there are too many foreigners playing in our domestic rugby and that they could ruin the game. I take it he was talking about English club rugby, because he is not usually anxious about the rest of us. If so, I think he's right.

The number of foreign players must be stifling the development of young Englishmen, especially in the two half-back positions where most of the imported stars reign supreme.

That's why I believe that the next couple of months are going to be vital for clubs and their young talent. With the domestic season being overshadowed by the World Cup and the build-up to it, we have tended to dismiss the club scene. After all, they are playing for only two points a game now. It'll be three points after the World Cup.

But it is a vital time for the clubs and the players who are taking the places of the absent stars. Two points are better than nothing, so winning will still be important but more crucial still will be how the younger players grab their opportunity. For the developing players and for the coaches trying to assess the depth of their strength these matches are going to be invaluable.

It will be interesting to see the difference in how the teams perform before and after the top players return. They may find the competition for places has hotted up.

There will be another consideration when the World Cup is over. Many of the players may not want to return home immediately. I understand that a lot of South Africans may be on the market. What a temptation for a coach whose team have not fared well before November. A few foreign players on short-term contracts, especially if they've been high-profile during the World Cup, would be very appealing.

Although I agree with Martin, I don't see how the influx of foreigners could have been avoided. Professionalism hit us so quickly that clubs could not afford to be left behind in recruiting teams to hold their own in a higher standard of rugby. Neither can you complain at the impact the foreigners have made. They've helped to lift the level of club rugby and to revitalise the habit of going to watch a rugby match among spectators.

And because many of them were nearing the end of their career when they came, there is a natural wastage. Philippe Sella has gone as have Michael Lynagh and Joel Stransky - and you can't tell me they didn't raise the tone of the place.

Others will follow them and I only hope that there are adequate replacements from the English ranks. It has been noticeable that the bigger clubs have been tending to replace the overseas stars with home-bred products. I am sure the clubs are as alive to the problem as Johnson is.

The situation is not quite the same outside England. In Wales we've had our share of incoming foreigners but, fortunately, they've ended up playing for Wales so they're not foreign any more. The Welsh strength, of course, is that we have all our international squad players back playing in Wales with the exception of Allan Bateman. And you may have noticed that the Irish and the Scots have also been taking their top players back. It does help to have a domestic structure that involves your international squad.

In Wales we are not quite sure yet at which club where our newest acquisition, Jason Jones-Hughes, will end up. Prising him away from the Australians has taken many anxious weeks but I'm delighted he finally made it last week. It was right that he should be allowed to play for the land of his father if he desired. Whether he will get into the Welsh World Cup team remains to be seen.

I saw him play twice in Super 12 matches in Australia earlier this year and he is big and strong and has plenty of pace. But he is still raw and there are a few centres ahead of him in the pecking order. He is reckoned to be an outside-centre or wing but if, God forbid, Scott Gibbs should get injured he could do a job as a battering-ram, ball-carrying inside- centre.

What has yet to be settled is what club he will play for. Cardiff are hoping to capture him, but Bob Dwyer is hell-bent on getting him to Bristol, who have been grabbing a lot of foreigners, but in their position I can't blame them. Newport have been doing the same. If a club needs to make a short-term impact they have no choice. But sooner on later, the RFU are going to have a regard for their international future and consider bringing in a club-by-club limit for foreign players.