Rugby Union: Andrew is the sacrifice

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S change of outside- half has been discussed with more animation throughout the land than a change of Chancellor of the Exchequer. The difference is that more people have confidence in Rob Andrew than in the present tenant of No 11 Downing Street. The similarity is that nevertheless a change was widely expected.

Andrew has always been a controversial player, not in the sense that his utterances or actions were ill-advised - for he is reasonable, civil and intelligent - but rather that there were numerous good judges of the game who considered him fortunate to be a regular selection and to be, now, the most capped English player in his position.

He began his career when England players were being discarded like City whizz-kids after the Great Crash. But he came through this turbulence to reach the blue skies and calm atmosphere of Geoff Cooke's regime. Others were not given this initial mark of confidence, and resented it. One said to me that Andrew had had every chance, whereas he had been discarded after half a dozen caps.

I saw - I see - this player's point of view, but over the last three seasons Andrew has been justified by his works or, rather, by England's results. He gained his confidence with the Lions in Australia, where he was a late addition to the party following Paul Dean's injury. Clive Rowlands liked to joke that it had taken a Welsh scrum-half - in this case his son-in-law, Robert Jones - to bring out the best in the English half of the partnership.

Whether Andrew's spell in Toulouse was equally beneficial is perhaps more doubtful. He has claimed that while in France he ran and passed (rather than kicked) with the best of them. But the only evidence he has so far supplied occurred in the London-North divisional match, not in any of the four internationals of the current season.

The sole aspect of the recent history of Andrew which makes me angry is his 120-day suspension. Here was a respected player who went abroad to work in his normal occupation, who played for the local club and who then returned to these shores wishing to play for his former club. Clearly, he should have been allowed to turn out straight away.

The 120-day rule was surely not intended to penalise players in Andrew's situation. If it is objected that the rule is meant to protect clubs from in-season transfers, and that Andrew is unfortunately caught by it, my answer is that it has done nothing in reality to protect clubs such as Gloucester. The Rugby Football Union can surely call on the services of a prosperous solicitor or a Chancery barrister who will draft a sensible regulation for nothing. For a modest fee, I am even prepared to do the job myself.

Andrew was as controversial as he was mainly because of a player waiting in his shadow who many considered his superior, Stuart Barnes. He, similarly, is reasonable, civilised and intelligent, but he has over the years been much more resentful. That was because he had a good deal to be resentful about.

As he showed with a lovely little break for the Barbarians against Australia, at the highest level he is more prepared to have a go. Maybe it is a pity he did not opt for Wales, for whom he is qualified having been educated at Bassaleg. But Welsh selections at outside-half have been so eccentric lately that he might have met with the same fate as the almost equally gifted Aled Williams.

Though I am glad to see the engaging Barnes being given a chance, I none the less feel that Andrew is being made into a sacrificial offering. So is Ian Hunter, with even less cause. Wings are there to score tries. Hunter's try, unfairly described as 'opportunist' - for it was a classic piece of intelligent following up - defeated France.

He has scored three times in three matches. This gives him a strike rate of 1.00, which among England wings is equalled only by J V Smith with four tries from four matches. Among great wings of the past, Gerald Davies had a strike rate of 0.43 and Ken Jones of 0.39.

Admittedly, they played in many more matches. But Hunter is still entitled to feel hard done by, the more so since he is replaced by Tony Underwood, who has looked less sure-footed in his own previous international outings this season.