Rugby Union: Desperation may force Bristol to blood Best

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BACK IN the bad old days when men were men and referees felt short- changed if there was not a decent punch-up, there was no such thing as an injury crisis before a Bristol-Gloucester derby; generations of West Country hard men - Memorial Grounders like Mike Fry and John Doubleday, Kingsholmers like Digger Morris and Phil Blakeway - would not go within 20 miles of a physio's couch, for fear of being ruled out of the big occasion. Times have changed, though. Bristol are struggling so badly for personnel that they are considering throwing Lee Best, a 21-year-old wing who has yet to sign for the club, in at the proverbial deep end on Saturday afternoon.

Capped by England at both 16 and 18 Group level, Best spent last season on Richmond's books before agreeing terms with the French club La Rochelle. But an early return to the Allied Dunbar Premiership now looks a possibility, thanks to a Bristol casualty catalogue almost as extensive as a list of Jeffrey Archer's alleged misdemeanours. Eduardo Simone, the World Cup centre from Argentina, is out for at least six weeks with knee trouble, while Spencer Brown, the former England wing, has a broken rib.

That is not the half of it, however. Dean Dewdney, the versatile Zimbabwean back, has a long-term hamstring problem, while Alex Cadwallader, a highly rated young centre, is out for the entire season with cruciate ligament damage. To cap it all, Bristol's bums-on-seats man, the former Springbok stand-off Henry Honiball, is struggling with a neck condition and may not recover in time to make his first appearance at the Memorial Ground. Even if he is declared fit, the selectorial hassles facing Bob Dwyer and his coaching staff will by no means be over. Honiball's presence would force an issue out wide, with Luke Nabaro, the polyglot wing from Fiji via Hong Kong, rendered ineligible as one foreign import too many.

Best trained with Bristol yesterday and was understood to have signed a letter of intent, paving the way for a full contractual agreement later this week. He is well regarded by a number of good judges - he performed particularly well during the England 18 Group tour of Australia in 1997 - but a debut in the most significant match of the West Country season thus far is hardly ideal. If only Bristol had signed Jonah Lomu and reinvented him as an Englishman, none of this need have happened.

Meanwhile, the Springbok centre Brendan Venter has called time on his career at London Irish. Venter will join Western Province next week following successful talks between the Premiership One club and the South African Rugby Football Union, who want all their Boks playing Super 12 and Tri- Nations rugby next season. Dick Best, the London Irish coach, would rather not have lost his most influential midfielder, but the fact that a significant five-figure sum is winging its way towards the Exiles' bank account should soften the blow.

The major off-field contest of the week is scheduled for Twickenham tomorrow when English Rugby Partnership, the joint union-club body charged with administering the top end of the domestic game, holds a board meeting under the chairmanship of Nigel Wray, the Saracens owner. High on the agenda will be the thorny subject of the British league, an idea resurrected by Tom Walkinshaw of Gloucester at a private meeting of financial backers in London last week.

Walkinshaw is a director of ERP and, assuming he attends the meeting, he will face some awkward questions from the Premiership Two contingent, who are eager to discover how they are expected to survive, let alone thrive, under his plan for a four-year, non-relegation deal in favour of those English teams participating in any new cross-border competition.

Board members will also want to know how any British league will be financed, and by whom. Walkinshaw is refusing to divulge names, but informed sources say that Mark McCormack's International Management Group has expressed an interest.