Rugby Union: Longest season's trek to World Cup summit: The domestic season will provide an arduous test for the marathon men on the road to South Africa. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
PEER OFF into the distance of the longest rugby season and there - standing as prominently in the mind's eye as the new West Stand rising at Twickenham - it is, still nearly 10 months off: the World Cup final in Johannesburg on 24 June 1995.

'Only 42 weeks to go,' groaned a colleague as Bath were opening this longest season against the Barbarians. Perhaps it is simply the ingrained cynicism of the press box but what should be a winter time of the most avid anticipation already looms like a marathon would to someone (one or two forwards of the old school, perhaps?) who hates running.

So far, though, we have not even gone a mile. Indeed, by the time the marathon men who form the national teams of these islands reach South Africa they could be excused if they had already hit the wall. Before even leaving home.

Such are the demands on our rugby players, who may one day look back on season 1994-95 as the halcyon days of their youthful prime, but most of whom for now are looking ahead with as much dread as anticipation. And there we were, thinking rugby was supposed to be fun.

There is, nowadays, no chance of that: the pleasure for most international players comes from the satisfaction of a job well done rather than anything to do with the joy of sport. 'Job' being the operative word, what with all the time off work these amateurs are having to take.

To reinforce the point, the season has scarcely begun and already Wales are preparing for an international, namely next week's thankless visit to Romania, and less than a month later they play Italy in Cardiff - all to determine which World Cup pool will be their destination.

Apart from this practical effect, these games do serve a useful purpose in reminding everyone that this season, as none before, is a means to an end far more than an end in itself. All right, this applies only to a tiny elite, but it is on them that our domestic rugby will be evaluated.

In other words, no matter what occurs in the forthcoming autumn internationals against opposition headed by South Africa and more especially in the Five Nations' Championship in the new year, England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales will ultimately - and quite properly - be judged solely on World Cup '95.

Remarkably, the prospects are by no means discouraging after a bewildering close season in which any reasonable prediction proved worthless. Thus, if you make Australia favourites to retain the World Cup you must do so on the basis of their 70-point blitzing of Western Samoa and the narrow recapture of the Bledisloe Cup from New Zealand rather than anything that went before.

The Wallabies impressed in none of their tests against Italy and Ireland and were even, if you please, fortunate not to lose to the Italians. There is also some internal dissension fomented as ever by David Campese, who for the umpteenth time in his distinguished career is fed up with being left idle on the wing by the inhibition of those inside him.

Mind you, whatever differences there may be within Australian rugby are mere debating points compared with what has been going on in South Africa and what is now going on in New Zealand.

Australia, we can estimate from their devastating performance against the Samoans, will be ready and willing for the World Cup. Of the Springboks and All Blacks we can be less sure, since South Africa have a new coach and, before next week is out, so may New Zealand. Ian MacIntosh's sacking and Kitch Christie's appointment should at the very least give the Springboks some sort of pattern - or introduce them to the real rugby world, if you like.

As Robert Jones, the Welsh scrum-half who has been playing for Western Province, put it: 'They seem to think you can just turn up, run on the field and play.'

There are quite a few administrators who wish all of rugby was just like that, but England's summer tour exposed astonishing South African naivety as well as profound ability. How else do we make sense of England, given no chance, prevailing in the first Test, and South Africa, given even less, in the second?

Almost as enigmatic are the New Zealanders, who lost twice to France (who had themselves lost to Canada), beat South Africa and finally lost to Australia. Nowhere near good enough, say the critics, meaning in consequence that Laurie Mains, the coach, is being challenged by four other candidates at a meeting of the New Zealand RFU council on Thursday week. To drop a home series to France for the first time seems to have been more than New Zealand rugby could take, though a French rugby writer of my acquaintance insists that, even so, this was not a good French team. Which only goes to show that, the rugby world over, some people are never satisfied.

(Photograph omitted)