Rugby Union: Indecision over divisional decider

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GEOFF COOKE, the England manager, has overwhelming statistical evidence to support the Divisional Championship. When there was none, England were hopeless; since there has been one, they have become rather good.

How this afternoon's decider between London and the South-West at Twickenham fits in to Cooke's recipe is not self-evident, however. But then this is the competition's problem: a severe confusion of identity which is hardly alleviated by the differing official attitudes to it.

On the one hand the postponement of this fixture from November and its reinstatement on a Bank Holiday at HQ is an attempt to turn it into a proper competition. But even the chance of getting into Twickenham without the aid of a ticket tout is not that attractive, not for this game anyway: before the weekend 5,000 tickets had been sold.

But a climactic divisional decider, according to Cooke, is precisely what the competition is not. Rather, it is all about picking an England team. How many turn up to watch is irrelevant; it is the throwing together of players from different clubs and backgrounds in an unfamiliar setting that is so vital.

As a stepping-stone to international rugby, indeed to any England representative rugby, it has become unavoidable but no one, not even Cooke, any longer pretends that once you are in the England side you have to keep playing for your division in order to stay there. Albeit at a higher level, the Divisional Championship has become as much a development exercise as the RFU fondly likes to consider the County Championship.

This is shown by the hordes of absentees from today's game, so many that Jonathan Callard is the only member of the England team who beat the All Blacks who is turning out. The latest withdrawal is that of the injured John Buckton, replaced at centre by Huw Davies 11 years after Davies first played for England there, with Jeff Alexander coming in on the wing.

Without the stay-aways the exercise is no less worthwhile, simply different. 'There are a lot of young players who will be seen in an unexpected setting and there are so many England teams and tours these days that it's important for them to do well,' said Graham Dawe, who in the absence of everyone else will lead the South-West.

As a grizzled veteran last capped in 1987, the Bath hooker does not fall into this category even if he has been playing some of the best rugby of his career. Both London and the South-West beat both the North and Midlands but the South-West's points difference is such that a draw will suffice to get Dawe's hands on the CIS Trophy.

LONDON: A Buzza (Wasps); D O'Leary (Harlequins), F Clough, H Davies (Wasps), J Alexander (Harlequins); G Gregory (Nottingham), S Bates (capt); G Holmes (Wasps), G Botterman (Saracens), J Probyn (Wasps), A Snow (Harlequins), A Diprose (Saracens), M Greenwood (Wasps), C Sheasby (Harlequins), M White (Wasps).

SOUTH-WEST: J Callard (Bath); P Holford (Gloucester), N Beal (Northampton), M Catt, A Lumsden (Bath); P Hull (Bristol), R Hill; C Clark, G Dawe (Bath, capt), D Hinkins (Bristol), R West (Gloucester), A Blackmore (Bristol), S Ojomoh (Bath), D Sims (Gloucester), D Eves (Bristol).

Referee: G Simmonds (Cardiff).