Rugby Union: Home-grown talent thin on the ground

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The Independent Online
England's rugby protectionists will be in `told you so' mood tonight when the Allied Dunbar Premiership returns to centre stage after five weeks of European competition. Saracens, Richmond and Newcastle are all in action and, as Chris Hewett reports, there will be few Anglo-Saxons in evidence.

It would take Clive Woodward rather less than an hour to drive from his home near Maidenhead to Saracens' palatial shared stadium in Watford for tonight's London derby with Richmond, but England's new coach may feel tempted to give the whole thing a miss and settle down to watch his old Bath colleagues embarrass themselves stupid in the latest installment of the BBC's fly-in-the-dressing-room documentary. After all, there will be more English players on television than he could hope to see at Vicarage Road.

Only 11 of the 30 players scheduled to start this evening's Allied Dunbar Premiership One fixture are available to Woodward and a mere three positions - second row, open-side flanker and No 8 - will feature head-to-head contests between English-qualified players. Indeed, the foreign contingent might have been larger still had Gavin Johnson, the South African full-back, and Richard Wallace, the Irish wing, shaken off injuries in time to play for Sarries, or Scott Quinnell, the Welsh back row forward, been available to Richmond.

Newcastle, who play Northampton at Kingston Park in the second of the matches postponed as a result of the death of Princess Diana, will also be two-thirds foreign. Ironically, one of the home side's few Englishmen, Dean Ryan, plays only because his club has lodged an appeal against a deeply questionable suspension retrospectively imposed on Monday by the Rugby Football Union.

Last week, Woodward referred to a "nightmare scenario" in which certain positions would be dominated by non-English players. While the cosmopolitan flavour of the Vicarage Road encounter will not cause the coach any great loss of sleep, his interest will be confined to the contest between the back rows, where Ben Clarke of Richmond has a golden opportunity to prove a point against Tony Diprose and Richard Hill.

Any wailing and gnashing of teeth from the "England for the English" brigade will fall on some profoundly deaf Premiership ears, however. Mark Evans, the director of rugby at Saracens, was quick to defend his polyglot selection yesterday, insisting that the positive aspects of the foreign influx far outweighed the negative.

"We need the highest possible level of competition for our leading clubs and I think it is very hard to argue that a purely Anglo-Saxon competition would bring that about," he said. "Is it better for talented young English players to fight for a place in a top-quality side participating in a top-quality league, or would we prefer to use their birthright to guarantee them a place in a mediocre competition? The answer is obvious.

"Besides, do we really need 180 English players in the Premiership? We're only looking to pick 15 at international level, after all. There may be the odd problem in particular positions - outside-half, for instance - but then, if you leave Rob Andrew and Stuart Barnes to one side, we haven't produced a stand-off of Lions quality for 30 years anyway."

Richmond, who head the Premiership on the strength of their comfortable victory over London Irish on the opening day of the campaign, prefer Earl Va'a, the Western Samoan World Cup player, to Adrian Davies, the Welsh international, at stand-off and field three more southern hemisphere players in their back division - Matt Pini, Steve Cottrell and Jason Wright.

Llanelli, feeling more secure than at any time in the last three years after raising more than pounds 500,000 from a do-or-die share issue, are still refusing to pay the pounds 10,000 fine imposed by Heineken Cup directors in the wake of their violent pool match in Pau last month. Ron Jones, the Scarlets' chairman, said yesterday: "The fine will not be paid until we receive satisfactory answers as to why we have been fined. We still don't know what rules we are meant to have breached or under what charges we have been dealt with."

Jones has asked the Welsh Rugby Union to intervene on Llanelli's behalf. European Rugby Cup officials have imposed a 21 October deadline for payment of the fine.

l Rob Andrew said yesterday that he was surprised by the criticism of both himself and the Newcastle owner, Sir John Hall, by Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, in his new book My Pride of Lions.

"I was a bit surprised about Fran's comments," Andrew said. "Both Sir John and Fran are similar characters - they're dynamic, enterprising individuals who believe in what they are fighting for, and they are bound to clash occasionally on what they see as the future of rugby."