Rugby Union: In it for the money and real thrills

The committee-room poopers failed to ruin the party on the paddock in rugby union's inaugural professional season, says Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
It was rugby at its most dispiriting: mean-minded, spiteful, unimaginative, unpleasant. Big boys indulging in silly little games, their self-importance inflated to barrage balloon levels. At times, Twickenham seemed like the most grotesquely ostentatious, irksomely grandiloquent kindergarten in Christendom.

Thankfully, things were a whole lot better on the pitch, where the players - remember them? - did everything in their power to make a success of the first fully professional season in the history of the European game. And successful it was, despite Cliff Brittle, Epruc, the RFU Reform Group and all the other besuited and benighted bores of the crashing variety.

After choking on the fetid air of the committee room, it was with the most profound relief that rugby's rank and file breathed deeply of the fresh air out there on the playing field where, at a conservative estimate, the positives of professionalism outweighed the negatives by a zillion to one.

OK, so the Pilkington Cup final had more whimper than bang about it; sure, it was painful to see Orrell, a decent and loveable club, wriggling helplessly on the wrong end of the financial hook; granted, too many gullible team managers found themselves railroaded into shelling out daft money for mediocre players who, by any reasonable yardstick, might have considered themselves lucky to be paid at all. On balance, though, a small price to cough up for the hypnotic experience of Real McCoy rugby at home and abroad. Much of it was stunning.

For all that, we ignore at our peril the hidden costs of a kaleidoscopic campaign. Take a look at Martin Johnson, Eric Miller, Simon Shaw, Rob Howley or any one of a dozen others who fly to South Africa with the Lions on Saturday and you will stare British rugby's most pressing problem square in the eyeballs. These men are exhausted: zonked, clapped out, dead beat. Some of them have played 30-plus front-line matches this season and the insanity of our fixture list is seen in its full perspective when you realise that those players are the fortunate ones. Others have played 40 games, a handful nearer 50.

More than anything, it was the unprecedented level of fatigue that accounted for Leicester's pragmatically tight-fisted Cup final performance at Twickenham at the weekend, a morale-deadening sight that brought a legion of anti- Tiger diehards out of the woodwork, their nostrils flaring with the scent of a told-you-so kill. Yet Bob Dwyer's assertion that his Midlanders could hold their heads high as English rugby's outstanding side was perfectly legitimate, for while Bath, Harlequins and Wasps, popular and hard-working league champions, enjoyed purple patches at different stages of the season, none approached the heights scaled by Leicester either side of Christmas.

There was nothing coincidental about the fact that Leicester went two rounds further than any other English side in the Heineken Cup, a competition so rich in passion and adventure that the Five Nations' Championship appeared flat and unappetising by comparison. So strong and capable were the Tigers as the tournament soared to its climax that only a force of nature could conceivably have denied them a first European title. When the force arrived, it wore the colours of Brive.

Here was something entirely unexpected: a side from the French heartlands, equipped with the full quota of skills and techniques associated with Tricolore tradition, yet capable of displaying both a serene calm and an iron discipline in the most pressured of circumstances. When Alain Penaud, David Venditti, Philippe Carbonneau and, most magnificently, Christophe Lamaison were given the opportunity to continue their fraternal musketeership in the French national side, the result was a Grand Slam.

The Heineken Cup threw up another quality outfit in the shape of Wasps, although the impact of their emergence was deflected by early reverses against Cardiff and Munster. Effectively out of the competition, they regrouped around their captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, and put 70 points on a full-strength Toulouse side who, until then, had been everyone's title favourites. Few, if any, appreciated the full implications of that slaughter at the time but in hindsight, it amounted to an irrefutable declaration of the Londoners' league title credentials.

If the game relinquished some of its treasures during the last nine months - Brian Moore, John Hall and Courage Bitter may not have been to everyone's taste but rugby was enriched by its association with all three - it has failed to free itself from a number of exasperating, potentially ruinous impediments. First among these, of course, is the festering dispute between rival factions at the very heart of the Rugby Football Union, now to be the subject of a judicial inquiry complete with Crown Court judge. Lock up the lot of them up, I say, and do as you like with the key.

Equally pressing - well, almost - are the concerns over gravy-train economics. Several leading English clubs have attracted investment packages of around pounds 2.5m but, at current salary levels, that money will have evaporated by the end of next season. It does not take Gordon Brown to work out that such flagrant expenditure will end in tears and if the English Rugby Partnership, the newly constituted body now running the top end of the domestic game, is worth even a sprinkling of salt, it will force those under its jurisdiction into some form of wage-capping agreement.

Playing standards will certainly accelerate next season, especially with Richmond and Newcastle giving the inaugural Allied Dunbar Premiership an intriguing and competitive edge, but the fixture madness threatens to undermine progress at every turn.

The French, who have been campaigning all year for less rugby rather than more, held a round of their national championship last Sunday and, in all but one of the eight matches, a single score separated the sides. Now that is quality. Are we too proud to admit that our Continental brethren may be on the right lines?

Season's main men, hits and misses

Player of the year

Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps).

It might just as easily have been Jeremy Guscott, whose sublime performances in the Bath midfield were appreciated by everyone bar Jack Rowell (who probably considers Michelangelo to have been an overrated painter and decorator). But Dallaglio it is, not so much for his exemplary fitness and supreme ball skills - we knew about those already - but for his authoritative leadership and the mature manner in which he rode his disappointment at missing out on the England captaincy.

Coach of the year

Rob Smith (Wasps).

No one ever talks about Rob Smith, least of all Rob Smith. However, it is a truism to say that Wasps could not conceivably have won the league title without him. Smith was one of the architects of Wasps' stylised approach back in 1995, and his work with this season's underpowered pack was central to the Londoners' unexpected success.

Game of the year

Gloucester v Leicester, Kingsholm, April 1997.

Awesome. No other word for it. The Shed in full voice, six fine tries, a world-class performance from Joel Stransky, some working-class passion from the Gloucester pack, a dozen minutes of injury time and a blood-red smattering of violence throughout. Gloucester won with an 86th-minute Phil Greening try and a Stransky-esque touchline conversion from Mark Mapletoft. Kiss goodbye to the title, you Tigers.

Ill-advised punch of the year

Martin Johnson (Leicester).

For whatever reason, Johnno took a severe dislike to Rod Fidler in the opening minutes of the aforementioned match. It was not such a good idea. For the remainder of a compelling night, the Gloucester pack took a severe dislike to all things Leicester. You may win the odd game at Kingsholm, but you don't win many fights.

Image of the year

Rob Hardwick (Coventry).

So there was Rob, all on his Jack Jones at Bisham Abbey while the rest of the England squad were listening to seditious speeches at a London hotel. It just about summed up the whole RFU-Epruc dispute: no one managed to get anything quite right.