Rugby Union: Gloucester to keep Kingsholm ball rolling

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The Independent Online
EVEN THOSE poor deluded souls who think of professional rugby union as a sport rather than a handy excuse for a boardroom row have come to the conclusion that the right hand is entirely unaware of what the left handis up to. That, sadly, is only the half of it. At the moment, the domestic game in England has four limbs working independently of each other, and unless Rob Andrew and his eclectic band of reformers win a few arguments in time for next season, the Allied Dunbar Premiership fixture list will continue to look like the Bedford defence: well strung out but full of holes.

On Sunday, the strongest League in Europe - yes, that includes the French Championship - returns after an absence of three weeks. Just in case anyone has forgotten, Gloucester are two points clear at the top, while poor old Bedford are two points clear at the bottom, if that is not too cruel a way of putting it. In between, there are all sorts of surprises: Newcastle, the 1998 champions, have yet to record a win in eight outings while Bristol, awash with money and positively chokker with foreign talent, are uncomfortably placed in the bottom half of the table.

Things may change quite radically over the next six days, for there are fixtures scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. But then, nothing; the Premiership, already overshadowed by the World Cup, shuts down until 22 January. What is more, players and supporters will be denied the pleasure of experiencing Allied Dunbar action on consecutive weekends until late April. Even in the final month of this fractured campaign, the most important domestic competition will have its thunder stolen by climaxes to the Heineken Cup, the European Shield and the Tetley's Bitter Cup.

Thank heaven, then, for Andrew and his proposal to compartmentalise the season. If Newcastle's director of rugby gets his way - and as we speak, he is the only oval-ball figure likely to break the political logjam and make something happen - next season's Premiership will get the block booking it deserves and be done and dusted by the end of January 2001. Indeed, the decisive matches could well take place over the Christmas period. Please, someone hit the fast forward button.

Not that the Andrew blueprint is wholly without its difficulties: for example, no-one will be in any rush to tell the Kingsholm faithful that Gloucester may not necessarily qualify for the 2001 Heineken Cup, even if they finish this campaign as champions of England. (Andrew envisages a system under which the Heineken Cup qualifiers are determined by that same season's Premiership standing). Still, the Cherry and Whites have spent such a ludicrous amount of time among the also-rans that they are currently living only for the moment. Victory over Dick Best's fitful London Irish outfit on Sunday would leave the West Countrymen very handily placed, especially as their away fixture on Wednesday is at Bedford.

Byron Hayward, the former Wales outside-half, makes his Kingsholm debut at full-back, while the exciting young loose-head prop Trevor Woodman replaces the Frenchman, Serge Simon in the one change to the pack that performed so well against a bulkier Bristol unit at the Memorial Ground three weeks ago. Gloucester's strength up-front is such that Phil Vickery, the best tight head in Britain, must make do with a seat on the bench.

Ben Clarke, the prodigal flanker who returned to a joyful Bath at the start of the season, will miss Sunday's match with Leicester at the Recreation Ground, with hamstring trouble, but at least he has some rugby left in his locker. Martin Hynes, the Northampton prop, is not so blest. The 31- year-old England A cap announced his retirement yesterday after failing to recover from a serious elbow condition and now plans to launch his own pest control company. Hynes was considered the prop most likely to in the early stages of his career, when he played for Orrell. He made an immediate impact on League rugby when, as a 20-year-old, he thumped the formidable Gareth Chilcott in the opening seconds of a match at Bath - a sign of ultimate confidence, if not insanity. Sadly, his rumbustious days are over, but he bowed out on a wry note. "I have enjoyed my career enormously and will miss the team spirit and camaraderie of rugby more than anything," he said. "It is ironic that for years referees have viewed me as a pest and now I'll be in the same business."