Rugby Union: Clubs play on a lopsided field

Rugby Union: The Premiership kicks off tonight with the World Cup posing a threat to domestic harmony
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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD will probably send his potential World Cup nemesis, Christian Cullen, a nice little e-mail over the next few days, congratulating him on his decision to remain a dyed-in-the-wool All Black. The England coach would be happier still had Cullen opted to draw an immediate line under his rugby career and go surfing instead, for the threat he poses to red rose well-being on the second Saturday in October could not conceivably be more serious. But in the absence of a premature retirement, Woodward is happy in the knowledge that the breeziest Wellington Hurricane of them all will not be blowing through this season's Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Or next season's Premiership, come to that. Cullen has signed a new contract with the New Zealand Rugby Union that ties him to the Land of the Long White Cloud - to the National Provincial Championship, the Super 12, the Tri-Nations and a long list of other silver fern duties - until the end of 2001. Contracts were made to be broken, of course, especially in the age of Nicolas Anelka, but as things stand, there will be no earthly point in any English Premiership coach waving mega-bucks under the great man's nose during the forthcoming global jamboree.

Not that the tempters will refrain from trying their luck; indeed, Cullen can expect to be trampled in the rush, along with Jeff Wilson and Andrew Mehrtens. Even Jonah Lomu will find himself knocked off his feet, which just goes to show that chequebook-wielding directors of rugby hit a whole lot harder than the England back division circa 1995. But Woodward will be praying for a minimal return on all the whispered negotiations about to begin in the hotel lobbies of London and Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin. In his opinion, English rugby has all the foreign blood in can take.

Some players, notably Martin Johnson, are banging the same drum, if not quite so loudly. You can see their point. Bristol, newly promoted to the top flight and denied the immediate midfield services of Henry Honiball (South African) and Jamie Mayer (Scottish), let an excellent young English centre, Jonathan Pritchard, set sail for Newport and signed Frank Bunce, a New Zealand greybeard playing out of France, in his stead. "Just who can I usefully watch in this season's Premiership?" asked Woodward recently. The tone of his question was an answer in itself.

And yet, it is hard to pick a fight with the most successful domestic club competition in world rugby. The Allied Dunbar Premiership, which leaps out of the blocks in Bristol tonight when Bob Dwyer's polyglot allstars take on Bedford at the Memorial Ground, is now quite clearly superior to its rival French version. As Philippe Saint-Andre, the former Tricolore national captain who now coaches Gloucester, acknowledged this week: "The English Premiership is about quality, the French championship about quantity. It is the concentration of 12 teams against the indiscipline of 24 teams. It is better, yes."

That superiority may well be reflected in events later in the season, when the rejuvenated European Cup and Shield tournaments hit town. The English clubs will reach the starting gate after eight hard Premiership matches, the French after a mish-mash of round-robin fixtures. Toulouse, for instance, played at Perpignan in the first championship match - very definitely no cakewalk - and then hosted Montauban a week later. Mont- who? It makes no sense.

There are many, Dean Richards and Rob Andrew among them, who question the wisdom of playing through the World Cup. Quite apart from the complications of losing their best players to someone else's tournament, they are not remotely convinced that the rugby public will buy into the club game while the All Blacks, the Springboks and the home nations are fighting it out on wall-to-wall terrestrial television. Their suspicions go on the line tomorrow when Richards' Leicester travel to Northampton for an East Midlands derby that habitually generates immense local interest, while Andrew's Newcastle head for Kingsholm, where rugby folk generally require a very good reason not to show up.

Unless and until the balance sheet proves otherwise, the lounge-suited denizens of the English First Division Rugby executive deserve at least some credit for backing their product in difficult circumstances and concocting imaginative ways of levelling this season's lopsided playing field. Two points for a win up to and including the World Cup, with three points on offer thereafter? It's not Einstein, but it's not daft either.

If there is a serious gathering of cumulonimbus over the domestic union landscape, it is to be found hovering above the barren lands north of Welford Road. Newcastle are comfortably afloat in the financial sense and they have some outstanding young players climbing confidently up the pecking order, but who is taking notice? More Geordies would pay to watch Bobby Robson change his underwear than to stand on the windswept terraces of Kingston Park. And to the west of the Pennines? A nightmare in the process of happening. The more trophies that clutter up Sir Alex Ferguson's lounge, the less chance Sale have of making even a minimal impact. Until the leading Yorkshire clubs bury their mutual hatchet and occupy the same bed, there will be no union resurgence in flat cap country.

But in every other area of the kingdom, the club game is on a roll. London rugby looks lean and mean, with Saracens and Wasps certain to make a good deal of the Premiership running. The big Midlands duo dominated last season and will at least take a shot at doing so again, while the West Country scene has been energised by Malcolm Pearce's epic spending at Bristol. Turnstile prices may be up this year, but so will attendances in all three regions.

Who knows? Even Woodward might get something out of an afternoon's Premiership viewing. He is unlikely to spot a new English answer to Honiball, but if he pops down the M4 to Bristol after the middle of November, he will see Honiball himself. Cheer up, Clive. There are worse ways of spending your weekends.