Rugby Union: Did some bright spark say: `Here is a chance to make lots of money'?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Many years ago I wrote a column saying that rugby had failed to catch up with the invention of the jet engine. My point was that, as aeroplanes now existed which could rapidly traverse long distances, lengthy tours were no longer necessary. A team from the Southern Hemisphere could come to these islands for one or two matches, and vice versa.

A former Lion commented to me that, while there was a good deal of sense in what I had written, I seemed to have taken no account of the strains that would be imposed on the players. I replied that a tour of two or three weeks would surely cause less stress than one lasting several months. He was not so sure.

The visits of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia have undoubtedly brought about some tiredness in the players. Unfortunately, the tiredness has been in the players from the host countries. The visitors are, I will not say as fresh as daisies, but certainly with a good few matches in them yet.

No team is in greater need of reuperation and rest than England. And no wonder. I do not think New Zealand have ever taken on, on four successive Saturdays, Australia, South Africa, France and then South Africa again. No doubt the present New Zealand side could cope with such a schedule more easily and successfully than England have done. But they would be showing some wear and tear at the end of it.

What I should like to know is this. Did some bright spark at the Rugby Football Union say: "Here is an opportunity for us to make lots and lots of lovely money."? Or did he say: "Here is an opportunity to pitch our national side against the very best opponents in the world, a series of confrontations from which we can only benefit."?

If it was the latter, it was a miscalculation. In teaching - not necessarily rugby, but teaching generally - there are two approaches. One is to congratulate the pupil but to point out that there are one or two matters which need to be put right. The other is to excoriate him (or her) for slipshod work which has to be corrected. The first approach is much the better because it builds up the pupil's confidence.

The visits of the teams from the Southern Hemisphere have broken down confidence. The effects of the Lions' summer tour have been dissipated. What are now called the Celtic nations will, I think, pick up their spirits more easily. On Saturday's evidence, Wales now have the basis of a formidable side. If Neil Jenkins returns to full-back, Arwel Thomas comes in at outside- half, Ieuan Evans is fit, Craig and Scott Quinnell are brought in, and a top- class loose head prop is acquired from somewhere, my native land may yet surprise everybody.

That will be in the Five Nations' Championship, shortly to be expanded and quite right too. There is no reason why England should not win some matches in that competition as well. But whereas Wales have come to terms with their status as a second-class rugby nation, England had, until the events of the last few weeks, seen themselves as a major power with a guaranteed seat at the top table.

Several factors played a part in this self-estimate. There were four Five Nations' championships (including three grand slams), in the 1990s. There was the new Twickenham, "Swing low, sweet chariot," and the rise of English rugby chauvinism, which is just as objectionable as the Welsh variety used to be in the 1970s.

And yet - here is the curious thing - a team containing several English players defeated the world champions only a few months ago. It was, admittedly, a joint enterprise involving representatives of all four home countries. Nevertheless, English players made a significant contribution to the Lions' success.

But - here is an even more curious thing - Clive Woodward, the England coach, chose not to build his team around the Lions contingent he had available to him, but to go off on frolics of his own. He is now blaming the selections policies of the English Premier Division clubs, which deprive him of choice, in particular at outside-half, by signing up foreigners of one sort or another.

There was a time, before professionalism, when the RFU nearly succeeded in confining First Division teams to England-qualified players; much as the union had done (and presumably still does) with the divisional sides. There is now a clear conflict of interest between the national side and the clubs, and no amount of hopeful talk about goodwill is going to resolve it.

But Wales had four English club players at Wembley, which must be a record, and they may have more in the future. Professionalism has changed everything. If Woodward and the RFU act in restraint of competition and free movement of labour, they may have the European Court breathing down their necks in addition to their other worries.