Rugby Union: Living in a topsy-turvy wonderland - let's enjoy it while we can

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The Independent Online
This season the world of rugby has been turned upside down. Even after the advent of league tables, Saracens were in a state of constant struggle to stay in the First Division, not helped in their endeavours by the habit the more successful clubs acquired of pinching their better players.

Newcastle, then called Newcastle Gosforth, were none-to-solid Second Division citizens, and looked back to the beginnings of the knock-out cup, when trading as Gosforth they had enjoyed a transient period of glory.

As for Richmond, they were a once great London club who, with their traditional rivals, Blackheath, had come down in the world, like an old man clad in the height of fashion of 1910 begging on the Embankment. Even Rosslyn Park, who (it is easy to forget today) were briefly in the First Division, were better placed.

See what has happened. In the Tetley's Bitter Cup Saracens beat Leicester and Richmond Bath. Newcastle seemed to have made heavy weather of defeating Worcester. But they are still in the competition with a chance, which is more than can be said for Harlequins. Wasps, last season's league champions and Cup veterans, survive as well. But they have had a wretched season, way down the table. Few would fancy their chances of taking the Cup.

What can one say about Bath? Against Brive on Saturday in the European Cup I wish them well but fear the worst. Perhaps the moral is that you should never agree to be the subject of a television fly-on-the-wall series. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, did the same as Bath. And look what happened to them.

In the past, rugby clubs went up or down quite slowly. Thirty years ago Bath were an unconsidered West Country club, the poor relations of Bristol and Gloucester. In the 1940s Coventry were the most feared side in England, the only team from outside Wales that could take on Cardiff with any chance of success.

Cardiff have been the solitary Welsh club to retain their position of former years, partly because Cardiff as a city has always been different, and partly - and connectedly - because there is more money there than there is in the rest of Wales.

For money is, as we know, the reason for the changes of this season. How long it will be before it runs out is anybody's guess. Some of the sugar daddies will undoubtedly grow tired of seeing their money disappearing even more rapidly than it would if they had tried to become proprietors of national newspapers. Rupert Murdoch may lose his enthusiasm for rugby union once sufficient numbers of followers have bought his dishes and signed their direct debit forms.

But for the moment, England's First Division is the Klondike of rugby. It is a matter of judgement how the profit-and-loss account balances. One of my colleagues, Mick Cleary, said confidently on television a couple of days ago that the presence of so many overseas players had improved the English game. He cited Kyran Bracken's improvement as a scrum-half for Saracens and England since he had found Michael Lynagh outside him.

Well, I know outside-halves can be made better by their scrum-halves. Rob Andrew became a more complete player after Robert Jones had played inside him for the Lions almost a decade ago. But I am not sure the process works in the opposite direction.

The truth is surely that England happen to be blessed with two Lions class scrum-halves in Bracken and Matt Dawson; whereas with outside-halves they do not have the same luxury of choice. Look at the players who are filling the position in the leading English clubs: Andrew (retired from international rugby), Lynagh (Australia), Simon Mannix (New Zealand, but in the process of qualifying for England), Adrian Davies (Wales), David Humphreys (Ireland), Thierry Lecroix (France), Joel Stransky (South Africa).

Luckily Paul Grayson has come through just in time, though I have never been able to understand why Mark Mapletoft has not been given a proper chance to show what he can do.

The time when the Rugby Football Union arrogantly tried to confine the First Division to players qualified for England now seems as remote as that period when a drop goal counted for four points.

There is nevertheless a case for confining a first team to one player from a non-European country. Any attempt to restrict the free access of players from France or Italy would almost certainly contravene European competition laws.

Thus Saracens would be free to play Philippe Sella but have to choose one from Lynagh, Francois Pienaar and Ryan Constable. Would this be a good thing? I am not sure it would. Perhaps we should just enjoy living in a rugby wonderland while it lasts.