Rugby Union: Greed killing the golden goose

Chris Rea says the championship will survive only if the Celts are resuscitated
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The Independent Online
I WRITE these words not as an ageing exiled Scot but as a passionately committed rugby enthusiast. The question we should be asking ourselves as we contemplate the start of the Five Nations' Championship in Paris and Dublin on Saturday is not so much where the participating countries will finish in the table, but where the tournament itself will be in five years time.

Will it still exist? Those who have been gloating at the recent misfortunes of Scotland and Ireland - and in particular the Scots' wretched humiliation in Italy - are missing a very serious point: that Europe's biggest money- spinner, the tournament which puts the bread on the table from which the entire game feeds, is fighting for its survival.

There was a time not so very long ago when the British football championship was considered inviolate. It was as much a part of the sporting landscape as the Five Nations is today. Yet it is no longer with us, having fallen prey to the commercial imperatives of global and European championships and the increasingly distended stomachs of the ravenous clubs.

But unlike football, rugby has never been a part of the wider European or world culture, and if it should fail at international level, the club game would inevitably collapse.

Peter Wheeler, Leicester's chief executive, argues that there has been an explosion of interest in club rugby. That is true. It would be strange indeed were it not so given the scale of the clubs' spending in the last two years. We could all improve ourlifestyles by recklessly spending more than we earn but the trick - no the absolute necessity - is to succeed by living within one's means. This is something the English clubs have failed to do and as a result of their spendthrift ways they are threatening the game in this country. The latest confrontation with the governing body was as certain as night following day and follows the folly of the clubs' withdrawal from the European competition next season.

It is only by appreciating rugby's past that we can hope to secure its future. Much of the fabric of the modern game was built on the foundations laid by Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Therein lies the strength of rugby union in these islands. It is the unique fusion of the different national characteristics and skills which have illuminated thechampionship and have made it the envy of the world.

One of the principal arguments employed by those clubs who have seduced players from the Celtic fringes is that the experience of playing at the higher levels in England improves the players as individuals. It may very well be true that by playing for Northampton Gregor Townsend has improved as a player, but this does not automatically make him a better player for Scotland. Over the years the Scots, Irish and Welsh have played a style that was peculiar to them, adapted to their conditions and suited to their temperament and upbringing. That is no longer the case and is illustrated by the Scots' plight.

Not since the dark days of the 1950s when Scotland suffered 17 consecutive defeats, providing fertile territory for the cartoonist who depicted queues of grass-skirted candidates outside Murrayfield hoping for a trial, has there been such depression north of the border. The position now is infinitely more serious as the rich continue to plunder the few remaining gems from the poor, and the domestic game in Scotland, Ireland and Wales sinks lower into the depths of despair. Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens, whose passion for sport makes his views worth listening to, recently made the point that it was not in anyone's interest to have a league which only four or five sides had a chance of winning. "We must," he said, "work hard to ensure that the league is truly competitive and that the bottom club always has a chance of beating sides at the top."

It is the same, only more so with the Five Nations' Championship and yet the probability is that next week in Paris and Dublin we will witness the eventual championship and wooden spoon deciders of this year's tournament. Since 1990 only Wales have broken the dominance of England and France.

Clive Woodward, the man charged with marching England to the top of the European hill before scaling the peaks of the world next year, is admirably realistic. He knows that on any other day the All Blacks would have taken at least half of the six or seven scoring opportunities which presented themselves at Twickenham last December. He is also uncomfortably aware of rugby's fickleness and that the irony of last year's championship was that England had dismissed Scotland, Ireland and Wales with contemptuous, if not wholly convincing, ease but then fell to France having played their best 60 minutes for years.

England's recent record against the French in Paris is without equal and this season they will know as much about the venue as their opponents. The width of the pitch is not one of the many marvels of the new Stade de France. This cannot be in France's best interest although, given England's new spirit of adventure, they may be equally constrained by a playing area which has been constructed first for football and second for athletics.

Jerry Guscott will have to have played the game of his life against Brive to have the slightest chance of playing in Paris. He is a supremely gifted player, whose vision and imagination can alter the course of a game. But his shortage of practice and his lack of match hardness must weigh heavily against him, particularly as the French have gone for a highly charged pack of forwards whose all-round athleticism hints at a game of furious pace.

While I have always considered Mike Catt's only position to be in the centre, it would be a little hard on Phil de Glanville, who served England so well in the pre-Christmas internationals, were he to be forced to step down for his Bath colleague. But in a match of this intensity De Glanville's lack of pace could once again be exposed and with Paul Grayson now operating so much closer to the opposition lines, Catt's bravery under fire would be an invaluable aid to England's attacking aspirations.

There should be no need for Woodward to alter the pack which fronted up to the All Blacks, save for the enforced change at hooker. If there is a concern, however, it will be in theback row which worked magnificently against New Zealand but which is on the short side. In view of the fact that the French love to attack from the back of the line-out, Woodward may feel the need to employ a specialist jumper like Tim Rodber or Tony Diprose at No 8 in place of Richard Hill who would then be in a straight fight with Neil Back for the position at open-side.

Unlike so much of what is likely to follow it, this match is a desperately close one to call but England's heroic deeds at Twickenham against the world's best side and the fact that France in their pre-Christmas state were so far short of that standard, must give England the confidence to register their fifth victory in their last six visits to Paris.