Rugby Union: Battle in game of two halves

West and Irish are determined to bridge the gap in the Allied Dunbar Premiership
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The Independent Online
THERE IS a perception, one that is glibly touted, that the Allied Dunbar Premiership One is a league of two halves - the Haves and the Have Nots.

Certainly rugby's nouveaux riches, Newcastle and Saracens, proved to the old guard, the duffle-coated traditionalists who still gather on touchlines around the country, that money can and does buy teams success.

Two clubs regarded by some as being potential strugglers in the top flight are London Irish and West Hartlepool. The Exiles clung on to Division One status by their bootstraps after a tense play-off, West have gone up and down more times than the Footsie Index.

There is little chance of either of these clubs accepting things as they are, without question and without challenging the game's cash divide. Mike Brewer of newly-promoted West Hartlepool will only admit: "At the moment that is the case. There is a division in Premiership One of the rich and the poor.

"Those clubs with big cheque books should be top of the heap, but a lot of the so-called `Haves' have not spent their money all that wisely. They have been paying astronomical sums of money to players who do not deserve to command half what they are receiving. We are a service industry and it is just as important to employ the right management as it is the playing staff."

Brewer was brought in too late to prevent West going down into the Second Division the season before last, but since then he has instilled a squad ethic into his players, having bought cannily in the first place. "I have the luxury of having played around the world," explains the former All Black back-row specialist. "I can rely on the network of former international players and coaches I have met to steer me in the right direction as far as buying players goes."

He also has the know-how to steer those players he signs in the direction he wants West to go - which is up. "Last year when I played I found I was having to coach on the pitch," adds Brewer. "This time around the guys have been together for some time and have begun to establish a pattern and a style for themselves, so if I do have to play then at least I will be able to play my own game."

This season, however, it looks like he will have competition for places and he is still trying to sign the French international back-row Philippe Benetton from Agen. "His club are insisting he sees out the final year of his contract," says a glum Brewer.

But while Brewer expects his side to struggle initially, he is optimistic that the realistic targets they have set themselves for the season will be met, which will mean retaining their top-flight status at the end of the season.

"The clubs which have been promoted will find it difficult," says Brewer. "Firstly, they will have to adapt to the faster pace of the Premiership game, and it is a lot faster than the Second Division. Secondly, for those players who have only ever experienced playing Second Division rugby there will be a mental, a psychological problem of adapting to life in the Premiership."

There is a similar problem for Dick Best as he whips his squad into shape. After a summer clearout that saw 26 players leaving the club, it is fair to wonder if there are any Irish players left in Sunbury. "Probably a third of the squad is Irish," Best insists. "A lot of those coming in from other parts of the world are Irish passport-holders and we have retained quite a lot of the better players from last season. We had all sorts of contracts here last year, part-timers, those paid per match and so on, so we had a bit of a clearout."

A number of the Exiles were tempted back to Ireland by the Irish RFU offering amazing deals to try to get some of their top players back where it is felt they belong. Best bears no grudges. But he could have his work cut out as he tries to instill a belief into the Exiles that they can compete with the best.

He certainly refutes the thought that they will be down at the bottom again, the whipping boys for the big spenders. Like Brewer at West, Best has encouraged his players to set realistic targets for the season: "We will be looking to end up around seventh in the Allied Dunbar Premiership."

That may sound like pie in the sky but like Brewer, Best is a shrewd judge of rugby flesh. He may have limited resources but he shops wisely. "I have signed a full-back called Jarrod Cunningham from Wellington in New Zealand," he says. "People will ask, Jarrod who? But in fact he sits in Christian Cullen's slipstream. He is very good. We also have a great captain in Conor O'Shea."

There are a host of other names, some better known than others, and by the time their half-back pairing of Kevin Putt, of South Africa, and the New Zealander Steve Bachop has linked up with Irish later this autumn they should turn into a daunting prospect.

"People are going to see a competitive Irish side," Best, stresses "a side that wants to do well." Brewer, too, is confident that West will be competitive.

West begin the new season at a new ground, Hartlepool United Football Club's Victoria Park. There is talk now that Irish may leave Sunbury and may even play the odd match in Ireland or at Highbury in North London where there is a big base for support. The Have Nots appear to be stirring at last.