Rugby Union: Bye-bye to buy-buy

David Llewellyn says that Newcastle are investing in a long-term future
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The Independent Online
It would be a mistake to suppose that Newcastle - the instigators of the wheeling and dealing for players which had the blazer brigade spluttering into their gin and tonics - are anything like a spent force in rugby union's transfer market.

Indeed, the rumoured pounds 1m the club has lined up to lure the former All Black and Wigan rugby league centre Va'aiga Tuigamala - a hugely sought- after figure by both codes - and the recruitment of Tuigamala's fellow Western Samoan, Pat Lam, gives the lie to that thought. But it is probably true to say that they will not again go on the kind of spending spree which saw them acquire the canny collection of old heads and young bodies currently sweeping the club through the Second Division of the Courage League. "I don't see us recruiting that much over the next 12 months," said Steve Bates, one of Rob Andrew's first purchases from Wasps in 1995, and now one of his coaching lieutenants.

"We have a pretty good youth side. We've done a lot of work with the Under-21s developmental squad and in 18 months time a lot of those, we think, will be pushing very hard for first XV places." In fact, the fear - and it is something of a nice irony - is that in the future the club might have to work hard to fight off the predators, who would merely be following the example Andrew set originally.

Many will use this coming Saturday and the daunting Pilkington Cup quarter- final against Leicester as something of a test of Newcastle's ability to become a major force in the domestic game. Bates, not surprisingly, is trying not to. "It will be a big test for us, but I'm not sure we are into measuring ourselves at the moment. We're a very young team. This is an opportunity for us to play some very good opposition, but our main goal is promotion to the First Division."

Then the real business starts - and being Newcastle there is a business plan in place already. "We have set ourselves some realistic goals, if and when we are promoted," he says. "We would not be disappointed with a finish in the top half of the table, then if things go well the following year we'd be looking to qualify for Europe."

Bates says he is committed to a long-term plan for Newcastle's success. "We feel that there needs to be a club atmosphere about the place, and a club and team spirit is very important for the development of the game. We think that we have a duty to these youngsters, once we've identified them as being future first-team players. We must nurture them and bring them on. It's not very good for their morale if we then buy in players for their position.

"We are making a pretty big investment in the youth side with the view to bringing on our own players, using the talent that we have here, with the older imports to coach them. And if you look at the side we have at the moment, we have some pretty experienced guys and some world-class players in key positions, all of whom can, and do, help our young players."

That is why Bates has little sympathy with the current complaint that young English- qualified players are losing out in their rugby development to ageing imports "The clubs are no longer here just to make England a better side; they are businesses in their own right," he said.

"They need to increase revenue, so if a Tuigamala or a Pienaar is available then they will be snapped up because they will help improve the club's standards of playing and bring on those around them with less experience. They will also bring in the crowds, and by bringing in the crowds clubs are spreading the gospel of rugby while maintaining their commercial viability. And it is then up to the young English-qualified players to play well enough to replace the overseas players who are keeping them out of the team."

If the attitude seems hard, then, as Bath's dismissal of John Hall starkly revealed, rugby has become a hard world.