Rugby Union: Celtic nations losing ground in professional era

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The Independent Online
The Arms Park was a magic place to be on Saturday. Before the start of what was a difficult game, emotionally, for England, there was such an immense atmosphere. The singing of the Welsh national anthem made me goose pimply. Like the rest of the team I savoured it all, just soaked it up, rather than let the atmosphere intimidate me.

And, apart from Rob Howley's try, which was not a good way for the winning side to end a game and took some of the gloss off what was a great victory, this was a satisfying day for the team. It rounded off what has been an exciting, inaugural professional Five Nations' Championship.

England fans in particular have been able to see for themselves the impact that professionalism has made on the game, particularly how much it has benefited players in terms of the style of rugby they are now able to play.

We have been heartened with the rugby we have played, although it is frustrating to think that the 20 minutes we threw away against France deprived us of a very emphatic Grand Slam. But there has been a transformation in the side. There is a lot of youth there and we have to be encouraged that a team with more than half a dozen new caps in it this year is capable of playing the kind of rugby we have.

But the good stuff has not been confined to England. Wales especially, and Ireland and Scotland, have had their passages of memorable play. But it is becoming clearer that, in addition to the North-South hemispherical divide, another gulf has opened, however temporary.

France have won the Grand Slam and England have completed a hat-trick of Triple Crowns, creating a Celtic fringe. Before professionalism, France and England had the greater playing resources, but Ireland, Scotland and Wales usually managed to stay abreast and indeed frequently managed to do even better than that. But professionalism is starting to take hold in England and at club level we are shooting ahead and producing consistently better-quality rugby.

This is all due to the fact that week in, week out, especially in the First Division, we are all playing this kind of rugby under more demanding and competitive conditions. It is the only way to develop players as quickly as we are doing. The results can be seen at international level.

The speed at which the English game has assimilated professionalism and adapted as it aims to compete with the Southern Hemisphere countries has not been matched by the other home countries. In the short term, it has produced a divergence.

But the Celtic nations can redress the balance provided they can find a format within their domestic competitions which will help them hang on to the players they want, and need, to retain. At the moment any number of players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales are turning out in England's Courage League, which cannot be helping the development of future players.

In the longer term, they have to decide on a structure that will suit them and take them forward into Europe. They have to produce the right framework that will make the game appealing to youngsters and ensure that the youth of today feel rugby is the game they want to play, as opposed to turning to Gaelic football or soccer or whatever.

England are certainly getting it right. Just look at the way our youngsters bounced back from the French disaster. In those fateful 20 minutes a bubble burst and the defeat could have had far-reaching effects. And the match in Cardiff was always going to come down to a question of how well the boys would react.

The Arms Park had all its myth, mystery and history further heightened by the fact that it was the last Five Nations' Championship match on the ground before redevelopment. It was always going to be hard emotionally. For long periods the Welsh players made it none too easy physically. But we were mentally right for it. As a result there were many good memories to take back home.