Rugby Union Commentary: Exiles are left to stare at the exit signs

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The Independent Online
AS SOON as London Scottish were promoted 11 months ago, siren voices piped up to question the right of exiles to take places in the Courage Clubs' Championship (as it will remain after today's sponsorship announcement) that would otherwise be filled by good Englishmen.

Call it narrow-mindedness, blinkered thinking or introspection promoted by the nationalism inherent in league rugby - and this particular exile would settle for all three - but there is a body of opinion in English rugby that would dispense with the diversity the Exiles bring.

What with London Irish being in the First Division as well, clearly the intrusion was getting out of hand. So there will be rejoicing somewhere if, or more likely when, the Scots are relegated. The 28-21 defeat of the Irish at Richmond, London Scottish's first league win for five months, has probably come too late.

It was a wildly fluctuating game followed almost immediately on to the bone-hard Athletic Ground main pitch by the Second Division fixture in which Richmond beat Wakefield 11-6. The congestion was such that London Irish complained they had been stuck in 'a hole in the wall' instead of a dressing-room.

The Irish found tries impossible but six penalties by the prolific Michael Corcoran, once on Chelsea's books, and one by Paul Burke after Corcoran had hurt his ankle should have been adequate. However, Scottish, who had tamely surrendered a lead built principally by two first-half tries, then breathlessly ran up 13 points in the final eight minutes.

David Millard's pass and Mark Sly's break created Lindsay Renwick's first try, Rob Scott and Derek White cleared the path for David Leckie's, and much later Millard accelerated up an unguarded blind side to dispatch Renwick for the conclusive try. This belated reversal of fortune in a match of desperately ordinary standard but abundant excitement keeps London Irish in such trouble that they too might go down if results continue to fall against them. Then we really would have an all-English First Division.

The Rugby Football Union officially accepts that its responsibility is as great to London Scottish, Irish or Welsh (or French, Manx, New Zealand or Nigerian) as it is to any club in England. Still, it would be better for the England team if all 13 (next season 10) First Division clubs were actually English, wouldn't it?

And thereby hangs a tale, because there have been occasions when the Irish and Scottish rugby unions, too, have acted against their Exiles - and so, one could argue, against their own national interest - by dragging players away for extra training, provincial matches and even the Hong Kong Sevens when it might have been better to ensure that their faraway progeny remained at the highest possible level in the land of their domicile.

This is changing. The clubs may not expect the RFU to oblige by allowing distinguished players of White's ilk to play league rugby as soon as possible after changing jobs from Scotland to the South-east, nor by scheduling the English league programme to avoid representative commitments back home.

But, given the growing significance of English-based players in the Ireland and Scotland set-ups, it is simple common sense for the SRU and IRFU at least to try. Both sides made the point by fielding five internationals on Saturday. Another exile worth nurturing was making his debut for the London Scottish third team on an adjoining pitch: Alan Sharp, lately of Bristol but now conveniently working in Surrey, who missed his cap against Ireland in January through a calf injury that has only just healed.

'It's been a major problem but we are now establishing a good liaison with the IRFU,' Paddy Hughes of London Irish said, more perhaps in relief than acclamation. As for any sense of being isolated amid a sea of Englishness, neither club seem to mind. 'If people want us to be relegated, we don't bother about it; all we ask to do is compete,' Neil Stanners, of London Scottish, said.

'It doesn't matter if a side are called Old Shirtlifters or Bath, they are either good enough or they aren't. If sides beat us we will go down, and if we go down it will be because we deserve to. But what we have is an identity; London clubs who go down have real problems because of their lack of identity. Not us.'

That was very nearly an admission of impending doom, the club's internal strife having exacerbated an already troubled situation. When the players grew fed up their coach, Andy Cushing, they said so and he resigned. Alastair McHarg, first-team convenor, was in India in business. This Scot sent a fax couched in Anglo- Saxon language and departed in sympathy and high dudgeon.

For a white knight Scottish turned to one of the Scotland coaches, Richie Dixon, the schoolmaster they called on when they dropped into the Third Division at their nadir four years ago. Second time round Dixon, commuting 400 miles each way, has taken a half-dozen training sessions.

Saturday's was his first home game and, he felt, revealed important improvement over the 41-17 defeat at Saracens on 13 March. 'It would not have taken much,' Dixon confessed, noting that forward play and tackling had been tightened - though Saracens' coach, Mark Evans, who was in attendance, thought the performance almost as bad.

'I want to help because London Scottish are part of us,' Dixon said. 'I'm not down here to be coach: the biggest thing I've been able to help them to do is rediscover their spirit.' And with that, he picked up a lift to Heathrow for the shuttle back to

Edinburgh.

London Scottish: Tries Renwick 2, Leckie; Conversions Grecian 2; Penalties Grecian 2; Drop goal Cramb. London Irish: Penalties Corcoran 6, Burke.

London Scottish: N Grecian; S Wichary, M Sly, G Dingwall, L Renwick; R Cramb (capt), D Millard; D Denham, L Mair, P Burnell, D Cronin, R Scott, D Leckie, D White, I Dixon.

London Irish: R Hennessy (J Byrne, h/t); S Geoghegan, S Burns, D Curtis, M Corcoran; P Burke, R Saunders; N Donovan, J McFarland, G Halpin, C Hall, C Buss, C Bird, B Robinson, D Pegler (capt).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Bath).

(Photograph omitted)

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