Rugby Union: Cap fits so grin and bear it

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THAT precious piece of tasselled velvet, an international cap, is the ambition of those who take part in England's unloved but apparently indispensable Divisional Championship. And many, probably too many, of those who play in this afternoon's opening matches in London and Leeds will be donning the headgear far earlier than they dreamed possible.

This is because the Rugby Football Union has signalled its likely intention to award caps to those who play in matches against the United States and Canada when England are on tour next summer. The fact that this will be the England second team, while the firsts are in New Zealand with the British Isles, is likely to be irrelevant.

As Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, pointedly said yesterday, this will in some cases mean third- and fourth-choice players being capped. 'No discussion has been taken yet about upgrading the internationals to cap status but the likelihood is that the answer will be caps,' Wood said. This begs the question, will the cap be worth the cloth it is cut from?

Still, the incentive is there for the 75 playing in London v the Midlands (holders of the ADT trophy) at Sudbury and the North v the South West at Kirkstall, as if the honour of representing one's division were not enough. Opinions may differ about this championship, but the fact is that until you reach the England team it is your only way in.

Once there, things are different. Will Carling is away on holiday in the Orient and Peter Winterbottom 'training', and no one should suppose other than that they will be in their usual places when France are the visitors to Twickenham on 16 January.

On the other hand, there are one or two luminaries for whom these divisionals are of disproportionate significance. In fact for Rob Andrew, who has seen Stuart Barnes make all the running while he has been requalifying to play competitively for Wasps (England v South Africa was no problem), the opportunity that begins when he leads London today could not be more welcome.

Andrew's heel-kicking, destined to continue to February, grows more absurd by the week - a case, if ever there was one, of the tail wagging the dog. Even the Barbarians did not oblige by picking him against Australia, an omission made even more excruciating when Barnes was their outside-half.

So Andrew's only meaningful rugby until his ban is served will have been either for London or England. 'The ban has forced me to miss more hard matches than I would have wanted and I'm relishing three hard-edged matches,' he said. Having played for the North in 1986 and '87, London in 1989 and '90, and missed 1988 and '91, Andrew has not played in a losing divisional side since 1985.

The migration of players such as Andrew has given London so much depth that sympathy for them in the absence of Winterbottom and Carling (also ex-northerners) and the injured wings Andrew Harriman and Chris Oti is severely limited. Midlands have only one current England choice, the 6ft 10in lock Martin Bayfield, and can be said to hold the trophy because the championship was last held in the absence of all England's players during the World Cup.

'This is your shop window for advancement and future representative honours,' Peter Rossborough, the Midlands coach, has been telling his men. It is a message that has reached even Barnes, who should not be assumed to have changed his celebrated antipathy to divisional rugby just because he has agreed to play it for the first time in four years.

But if you want to get back in the England team - as Barnes does so badly - this is how you have to go about it. That does not mean you have to like it.