Rugby Union: Looking from front to back

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The Independent Online
ONE of the characteristics of rugby in England and Wales today is the domination exercised by the big clubs. In Wales this has always been so, with Neath now replacing Newport as one of the 'Big Four'. The current Welsh team consist of players from Cardiff, Llanelli, Neath, Pontypridd and Swansea.

The departures of Scott Gibbs and Scott Quinnell, and the injuries sustained by Mike Rayer and Ieuan Evans, make no difference to the overall pattern.

Their replacements are respectively Nigel Davies, of Llanelli, Hemi Taylor, of Cardiff (with Taylor at No 6 rather than No 8), Anthony Clement, of Swansea, and, presumably, Nigel Walker, of Cardiff.

Llanelli have the largest representation, with five players to Cardiff's four. This does not reflect their present position of fifth in the Heineken First Division. Swansea, who are top, and currently have only two players in the Welsh side, are perhaps entitled to feel a little aggrieved.

I should immediately increase their representation to three by recalling Robert Jones. This would mean that Llanelli's share would decrease to four with the departure of Rupert Moon. He is more a scrapper than a strategist.

I have nothing against Moon, who is a very good player. Jones, however, is touched by genius. Still, there is no reason why league positions should necessarily be reflected exactly in national selections.

Let us have a look at England. They have not played since the South African tour, which by most accounts combined happiness and misery in roughly equal proportions. I am assuming that Paul Hull retains his place at full-back, Jeremy Guscott stays free of injury, Victor Ubogu keeps the position of tight-head prop, and Jack Rowell persists in playing three No 8s in his back row.

This last assumption is probably safe enough. The press campaign that now seems to be mounting in favour of a place for Bristol's Derek Eves on the open side is admirable. I am with it most of the way, though I feel that Lawrence Dallaglio, of Wasps, is equally if not more worthy of consideration.

The only difficulty is that the campaign is bound to fail. The selectors will say: 'We tried Neil Back, gave him every chance, and look what happened. A virtually anonymous figure on the international field.'

For England, a more serious problem than the back row is the front row. Bath have asked Ubogu to revert to his former position of loose head, and the player has agreed. I have always believed that Ubogu is suited to that side of the scrum. A loose- head prop can keep up with the play more easily because he can detach himself from the scrum more readily. Mobile props such as Mike Coulman, of Moseley, tend to favour that side.

Ubogu is of that formerly, and maybe still, suspect group. Having spent some two years turning himself into a tight head, he now finds himself compelled to change sides again. But, here also, the future of Ubogu makes little difference to the composition of the team as far as club representation is concerned. For Bath have three other props of international class: John Mallett, tight head, David Hilton, loose head, and Chris Clark, who can play either side.

My own solution would be to shift Jason Leonard to tight head - where he performed creditably for the Lions in New Zealand following a crass selectoral muddle over their front row - and to award a first cap to Graham Rowntree, of Leicester, on the other side. This would give Leicester five representatives (Rowntree, the Underwoods, Martin Johnson and Dean Richards) to Bath's three (Guscott, Nigel Redman and Ben Clarke) and Harlequins with three (Will Carling, Brian Moore and Leonard). Harlequins are the Llanelli of English rugby. In representative terms, they are to Wasps as Llanelli are to Swansea.

It is surprising that, unless Dallaglio is suddenly preferred, Wasps will have only one player, Rob Andrew, in the England side. Damian Hopley certainly deserves a chance to partner Guscott. He did not get it under the previous regime.

Instead, the boobies who picked the South African tour party tried to turn him into a wing. He seems unlikely to get it under the present dispensation.

For Carling, like the Duke of Marlborough (the 18th century one) is apparently captain for life.