Rugby Union: English clubs set fair for future

Despite a season of internal strife and financial crises, domestic rugby is in good shape. By Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS no Europe, no wholly credible challenger to Leicester at the business end of the Premiership and certainly no political harmony. As of next week, or perhaps the week after, there will be no London Scottish and, quite conceivably, no Richmond either. The commercial hard-liners on the English First Division Rugby board have ensured a sour end to a long and often bitter campaign; the dirty tricks being performed at committee room level make the average All Black ruck look like high tea on the croquet lawn.

How is it, then, that the professional club game in England is not snookered behind the eight ball, as it is in Scotland and Wales? Because for every toxic drop of bad news that comes seeping out of this executive meeting or that boardroom summit, a torrent of good news comes flooding off the playing fields of the Premiership. The players, the poor bloody infantry, have performed like lions this season. It is not their fault that they are being led by donkeys.

The Premiership and, by extension, the Tetley's Bitter Cup, succeeded in spite of the worst efforts of those charged with administering them, and while it would be fatuous to suggest that rugby is poised to challenge football's grip on the public consciousness, it is fair to say that next year's Allied Dunbar tournament will be significantly less predictable than the FA Carling version. Leicester will look the part again, but equally bold claims can be made on behalf of Northampton, Bath, Wasps, Saracens, Harlequins, Newcastle and London Irish.

Especially as the World Cup is likely to give the status quo an early- season wake-up call. EFDR's decision to play Premiership rugby through September and October, regardless of the fact that the leading clubs will be international-free zones, has not amused the coaching classes: talk to Rob Andrew or Dean Richards or Ian McGeechan and they will beef for hours on end about the "fixture structure from hell". But they would, wouldn't they?

In actual fact, EFDR have got this one bang on the button. It might seem daft to play a third of the championship without the best players, but it would be a whole lot dafter to close the clubhouses and padlock the gates until mid-November, just when supporters are getting into the habit of watching live rugby on a regular basis.

They are not just packing them in at Welford Road and Franklin's Gardens but in the capital too. Wasps, worthy cup winners under the admirable Mark Weedon, averaged gates of 9,000-plus during their excellent post- Christmas run; support for Harlequins improved dramatically as they barn- stormed their way into the European equation; and Saracens, still a London club despite uprooting to Watford, managed to hold their share of the vote in the new constituency despite some wretched mid-season form.

Bath and Gloucester also had their trials and tribulations, especially the latter. Perhaps the most depressing sight of the season was the crumbling of the high walls of Kingsholm; once a well-fortified castle, it is now about as impregnable as an open-air flea-market. The sacking of Richard Hill in mid-campaign was a joke, albeit one in the poorest of taste. If the Cherry and Whites' subsequent slide towards the earth's core served any positive purpose, it was to remind owners and chief executives of the folly of football-style management.

Leicester made fewer mistakes than anyone, both selectorially and tactically, hence their champion status. They had to walk the tightrope without the balance provided by Will Greenwood, Joel Stransky and, for a considerable time, Austin Healey, but their defence was so secure, and the back five of their scrum so superior to anything else on the circuit, that they made it across the chasm without undue alarm. Richards can take a good deal of credit for his side's success; he is no McGeechan and certainly no Carwyn James, but he narrowed and hardened a Tigers mindset in serious need of re-adjustment after Bob Dwyer's bold experiment in cosmopolitanism. Inward-looking he may be, but Deano can point to his trophy cabinet and ask: "Outsiders? Who needs 'em?"

Given their close proximity to Welford Road, the well-appointed wannabes of Northampton are finding Leicester's neighbourly pre-eminence hard to stomach. They may not have to stomach it for very much longer: the addition of Allan Bateman from Richmond, a centre to die for, will add craft and imagination to a pedestrian midfield next season and give the exciting left wing Ben Cohen the ammunition he needs to blast his way into the England set-up. Up front, the Saints can mix it with the best already. With Bateman on board, they will also back themselves out wide.

It is not at all difficult to foresee one of the big Midlands outfits making a serious dent on the European Cup, especially as the French have managed to get their designer culottes in a horrendous twist. Toulouse, Bourgoin, Montferrand and Grenoble have already qualified for the competition, with Stade Francais favoured to secure one of the two remaining positions.

But as John Gallagher, the director of rugby at Harlequins, said on Wednesday night, none of the leading Tricolore sides are exactly setting the Seine on fire. "If you think we have problems over here, you should see them," said the former All Black. "I've watched a good deal of their club rugby recently and it seems that they have some sorting out to do."

Assuming the leading players are still able to walk after their World Cup exertions, the newly constituted Euro competition should mine a rich seam of heightened interest in club rugby. Pray God there is no more trouble at the pithead.

PURE THEATRE: CHRIS HEWETT'S PREMIERSHIP ENTERTAINERS XV

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15 TIM STIMPSON

(Leicester)

Stimpson may not be the most dependable full-back in the game but the only people he embarrassed during an unforgiving Premiership run-in were his critics.

14 IAIN BALSHAW

(Bath)

Uninhibited, unpredictable and possibly uncoachable. The boy is a natural and once he maximises his upper body strength, he will walk into the England side.

13 VA'AIGA TUIGAMALA

(Newcastle)

Talking of big guys, they don't come more outsized than "Inga the Winger". Inga's best position now is outside centre, from where he habitually wreaks havoc.

12 BRENDAN VENTER

(London Irish)

A terrific campaign, marked by ferocious commitment and a cavalier disregard of the offside law. As hard as granite, he was the rock on which London Irish constructed their season.

11 STEVE HANLEY

(Sale)

He came, he saw, he conquered, he then broke his wrist on his England debut at Wembley in April. But he achieved so much in the space of seven and a half months that he could scarcely complain. The English Lomu? The World Cup will tell us.

10 ROB ANDREW

(Newcastle)

An entertainer? Rob? Unquestionably. England's former golden boy might not describe himself as such, but some of his big-game performances were definitive example of the stand-off's art.

9 KYRAN BRACKEN

(Saracens)

A tip. Don't criticise - or even poke fun at - the best scrum-half in Europe unless you fancy ploughing through an endless stream of Internet hate mail. Bracken has one hell of a fan club out there, partly because of his rugby talent and partly because of his looks. Somehow, he has remained as modest as the day is long. Damn him.

1 JASON LEONARD

(Harlequins)

A summer's rest did the old boy a power of good. After Christmas, he could be seen covering the wide open acres like a turbo-charged gazelle. The best prop forward in the history of English rugby.

2 FEDERICO MENDEZ

(Northampton)

Brilliant one moment, phenomenal the next. Argentina's finest is also the world's finest; on his day he stands head and shoulders above any other hooker on the planet.

3 VICTOR UBOGU

(Bath)

Ubogu has been doing the business on the pitch for two seasons and he has weakened the resistance of Clive Woodward through sheer quality of performance.

4 MARTIN JOHNSON

(Leicester)

There is something compelling Johnson these days. He goes about his work ruthlessly and dispassionately, hitting the rucks and mauls at full tilt from first whistle to last.

5 FRITZ VAN HEERDEN

(Leicester)

Almost as effective as Johnson, which is saying something. It is difficult to imagine how the Springboks can ignore him in the World Cup: his line- out work alone is worth its weight in krugerrands.

6 PAT LAM

(Northampton)

The key performer in Newcastle's 1998 Premiership-winning side, the architect of Northampton's improvement this time round. Lam remains the most versatile all-purpose loose forward in England.

7 NEIL BACK

(Leicester)

Back fetches and carries and rescues his colleagues from seemingly hopeless situations. He gives the Leicester pack its vision and direction.

8 MARTIN CORRY

(Leicester)

Perhaps the most consistent Premiership performer of the lot; his absence from the nomination list for the Allied Dunbar Player of the Season was nothing short of scandalous.

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