Rugby Union: Invasion of the entertainers

New season set to be the most competitive and compelling yet as the senior clubs get down to business
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The Independent Online
It may sound an awful lot of money to those of us condemned to earning a crust in the real world, but pounds 12m no longer breaks the bank in the wild and wacky never-never land of sporting make-believe. At current exchange rates that sort of investment might buy you four-fifths of Alan Shearer or one of the wing mirrors on Michael Schumacher's Ferrari, so someone at Allied Dunbar has closed a very sweet deal indeed in purchasing the top end of English club rugby at a bargain price.

The inaugural Allied Dunbar Premiership campaign escapes from the traps in Bath, Gloucester, Northampton and Richmond this afternoon and for all the legitimate concerns over reckless foreign recruitment, unsustainable wage bills and a ridiculously top-heavy fixture list for the leading players, the new sponsors will get more than their money's worth this season. Quite simply, this latest manifestation of England's leading domestic competition will be the most compelling and competitive yet.

Those unreconstructed Rugby Football Union blazers who remain deeply suspicious of the senior clubs' whole-hearted embracement of professionalism - and yes, that particular breed of dinosaur still exists - may prefer not to hear it, but the credit for what is about to unfold lies wholly with the Premiership participants who manufactured a silk purse from a sow's ear last season and are confident of cranking up the entertainment value still further now they are operating from a more stable financial base.

Only Bristol, denuded by the departures of three international forwards, have yet to attract multi-million pound investment and latest indications from the newly refurbished Memorial Ground suggest that situation may change any day. London Irish, the other top-flight side with one foot in the debtor's prison, are buying their way out of trouble through a business consortium-led fund-raising operation that has already generated around pounds 2,400,000 and continues to bear fruit at a spectacular rate.

As a result of all this new-found wealth, the Premiership is positively dripping with quality. Much of it is non-English, of course, and there is little doubt that a number of clubs are guilty of offering daft salary packages in an effort to bolster their squads, yet the fact remains that the average top-flight side can now parade more than a dozen full internationals before the paying public.

The promoted polyglots of Richmond, for instance, feel able to confine three full caps - Matthew Pini of Australia, Earl Va'a of Western Samoa and John Davies of Wales - to the replacements' bench when they face neighbours London Irish at the Athletic Ground this afternoon. Likewise, Bath can field nine Test players against Newcastle despite the fact that another 11 are on a long injury list.

Much of the fascination surrounds the newcomers, Richmond and Newcastle, for both are equipped, on paper at least, to make an impact worthy of the name. "People are expecting a lot from us," admitted Ben Clarke, the Londoners' captain, yesterday. "But we are also expecting a lot from ourselves. Last season, professionalism was an experiment for everyone concerned. This season, it's down to business.''

Both clubs are cash-rich and both have used their enviable resources to wipe away all remnants of their amateur past and reinvent themselves as thoroughly modern 21st century market leaders. All they have to do now is live up to their own hype and win some genuinely competitive matches of a kind all too scarce in last season's unequal Courage League Two. Early wins for either - or, indeed, both - could set a realistic top four challenge in motion and finally condemn the old Bath-Leicester hegemony to the dustbin of history.

Those two old warhorses will still be in the frame, though; only a fool would bet against them filling 50 per cent of the available Heineken European Cup qualifying places when the final Premiership pecking order emerges in May. Bath had their fingers burned and egos bruised during their trophy- less exertions last time out but the green shoots were there for all to see towards the end of the campaign, especially when they put more than 70 points on Gloucester in an extraordinary match at The Rec in April. Frighteningly, Gloucester played pretty well that night.

And Leicester? They will be ruggedly strong as usual, but the Welford Road faithful may find themselves transferring their myopic allegiance from Martin Johnson, Neil Back and their fellow artisans in the ABC club to a genuine fleet-footed, nimble-fingered artiste in the shape of Waisale Serevi. The wondrous Fijian may, of course, die of exposure in the cold and wet of an east Midlands winter but if he is still breathing come the spring, he will surely give us something to cherish.

Wasps, whose scheduled opener against Serevi's Tigers has been postponed to accommodate the Notting Hill Carnival, are also certain to feature strongly, but then, it is possible to make out persuasive top-four cases for at least nine of the dozen elite participants. One positive by-product of what has quickly become known as English rugby's "foreign invasion" is the uncertainty it brings in its wake. The big-money imports may all flop together, but it is more likely than some will light the blue touchpaper and set the Premiership alight a la Bergkamp, Zola and Juninho.

A salivating prospect, then. And we still have the Heineken Cup, the Five Nations and an All Blacks tour on the back-burner.