Rugby Union: Clubs' cruel southern exposure

Chris Rea argues England's tour reveals real weakness in the domestic game
Click to follow
HARDLY a week of last season went by without some pundit drooling over the unsurpassing brilliance and unrivalled entertainment value of premier league rugby in England.

It was, we were told, on a different scale to anything we had seen before and was ample justification for the recklessly extravagant outlay on players, many of whom had been imported. No matter that expenditure had so spectacularly outweighed income, it was a price the game as a whole should be happy to pay and those who criticised the clubs for their ruinous ways and selfish interests were carping killjoys rooted in the past. The future lay with the clubs, the product was the thing, and the product was world class.

What a load of cobblers. The awful truth might be just beginning to dawn on those fools in their paradise that the players who are facing a whitewash in the southern hemisphere this summer are, in most cases, woefully short of the required standard. Yet, week in week out, they have all cut the mustard for their clubs in domestic rugby. They are not the Tooting B Casuals, but a group of highly trained, well-paid professional sportsmen, considered to be in the front rank of players in England. All but five of those who capitulated last week in Brisbane had already represented their country.

The conclusion to be drawnis that the structure of the English game is incapable of producing players of the class required to play at the very highest level. And without a competitive and successful national side, the game underneath it will inevitably wither. What, do you imagine, was Cellnet's response to the pictures from Brisbane last week? Not only was their name associated with crushing humiliation and defeat, but the Australians, the instruments of England's torture and despair, were sponsored by Vodafone. Publicity like that a sponsor can do without.

Attempts are already being made, of course, to limit the serious damage being done to the English game. The administrators responsible for the tour, who still believe that the clubs are innocent parties in the sorry episode, are seeking to excuse it on the grounds that it will never happen again. Quite apart from the fact that it should never have happened in the first place, there is absolutely no reason why it should not happen again. Nothing has changed and certainly there is nothing in the lamentable Mayfair Agreement which guarantees that this farce will not be repeated.

The only future for the Rugby Football Union, and for any governing body in sport, is to become a commercial entity in their own right. That requires control of their assets, but the RFU have surrendered that power in the crucial areas of player contracts, guaranteed release of players for international matches, domestic competitions and with it, mastery of their own destiny in Europe, broadcasting rights and the scheduling of international matches. So far as the RFU is concerned, the agreement is now legally binding, although I suspect that the International Rugby Board will have something more to say.

Meanwhile, every trick is being used to create a diversion from the embarrassment of England's tour. One commentator even found something to deride in the All Blacks' trial which attracted a midweek crowd of 10,000. "That," he wrote, "tells you all you need to know about the night life here on a wet Tuesday." It tells us much more, however, about the difference in attitudes to the game between the two countries, and, even more to the point, the difference in philosophy as to how it should be structured.

The very idea that there should be national trials here would be laughed out of court as archaic and commercially unviable. The clubs would react to it as they did to Fran Cotton's vision for the future, which included a representative layer bridging the gap between the club and the international game. But I would respectfully suggest that what is good enough for the best and most advanced rugby country in the world might just be good enough for England.

The one certainty is that the present system for producing international players in England is not working. The influx of players from other countries at the fag-end of their careers may be helping natural-born English boys in their development at their clubs but it is not preparing them for the infinitely more rigorous demands of international rugby. Not only was the Cotton plan, which would have addressed many of these problems, rejected out of hand, but Cotton was, until it was withdrawn on Friday, facing a charge of bringing the game into disrepute. The sheer folly of it all defies belief.

It will be of small consolation to Cotton that the Scots have latched on to his idea to build a marketing strategy around the national side with their Club Scotland initiative. The opportunities for creating a global brand, and through that for developing Scottish Rugby are considerable. For England they would have been inestimable.