Rugby Union: Apart from the politics, a season to be cheerful

Mark Evans, Saracens' director of rugby, argues that the game is developing well
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The Independent Online
AS THE northern hemisphere season winds down and the summer touring time beckons, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the last 10 months. An end of year report, if you will, in which rugby union grabs two spare minutes in order to indulge in a spot of navel gazing and self-examination. How is the old game looking on this side of the world?

Not too shabby, believe it or not - for among all the ear-biting, politicking and poor refereeing some real progress has been made. To start with, the crowds are up - not as much as they will need to be, but nevertheless a real advance. Towards the end of the season Saracens played in front of sell-out crowds for six weeks in a row - it was a great experience and may well encourage owners and clubs to invest still further in their facilities. Good sides such as Bath, Sale, Richmond, Newcastle and even Northampton have outgrown their current grounds and must quickly make some kind of alternative arrangement. These are difficulties which are associated with success, not failure.

The profile of the rugby public is also changing for the better. Far more women and children are attending games, the atmosphere is more welcoming and inclusive as the dominance of middle-aged males is gradually being diluted.

Even more encouraging, the competitions in England and France are increasingly open - it was noticeable in both countries that the Heineken Cup sides who had done so well in previous seasons struggled in their domestic leagues. In England the hegemony of the traditional "Big Four" of Bath, Leicester, Wasps and Harlequins was broken once and for all. No side in the Premiership was a pushover, particularly on their own patch.

This can only enhance the attractiveness of the sport. People don't go and watch unless there is an element of uncertainty about the outcome - which is why some, if not all, of the concerns voiced about the long- term future of the Five Nations have some validity.

Certain elements of the game itself have improved markedly - notably the defensive organisation, continuity skills and running attacks off first phase. The return of the scrum as a genuine battleground has been a huge fillip and the relatively new "lifting line-out" is visually impressive if nothing else. Many teams have embraced a more open style with enthusiasm, but the variety of approaches which has always been one of the game's greatest strengths remains.

Having watched Perpignan run everything in the French final last weekend, with no penetration or success, made me appreciate even more some of the merits of Newcastle's much-maligned direct and abrasive approach. The game has changed but a strong scrummage, accurate kicking and sound driving play remain essential components of any successful team.

The second year of professionalism has witnessed some serious fall-out, particularly in the English Second Division, Wales and Scotland, with huge numbers of players being released or having their contracts renegotiated. But it has also seen the first signs of more investment in areas such as coaching, youth development and training facilities. If last season was all about money and a mad rush to get players under contract at virtually any cost, this season has seen a more thoughtful approach.

Although the mistakes of the early months of professionalism are still having major repercussions, they will have worked through the system in another year or so. The number of participants will be much smaller than originally envisaged, but those that remain will be on a much sounder financial footing.

Of course there are still problems: the settlement between the RFU and the English clubs is by no means ideal, the temporary demise of the European Cup is to be regretted and refereeing standards need to be jacked up massively. But overall the picture is encouraging.

The pace of change has been phenomenal but there is no going back to a time when there was another job to go to on a Monday morning and major clubs operated on a turnover of less than half a million pounds. It is easy to forget that those days are less than three years away. It's equally easy to take for granted that the public in Europe now have access to talented, world-class players such as Lam, Stransky and Brooke on a weekly basis. Or that we have only had a competitive league structure in England and Wales for little over a decade. Rugby union is a very young sport in some ways - for over 100 yearsit did not have to try too hard but now it does and in five years time I believe the game will truly have come of age.

For now you must forgive me if I take my leave. It is the middle of May, the cup is in the trophy cabinet and the summer break beckons. Outside, the sun shines and I am reminded that pre-season training commences in exactly 50 days time.

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