Rugby Union: McGeechan breaks through impasse

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KEITH BARWELL, the big bad wolf of Northampton, was enjoying life on the piste yesterday, which was quite a coincidence given that his club has spent the last week and a half careering down the slippery slope to public humiliation. In the absence of his multi-millionaire boss, Ian McGeechan took the only sane decision open to him and unilaterally called time on the political squabble that has reduced English rugby to a laughing stock.

McGeechan, one of the most respected coaches in the world game, intervened on behalf of Paul Grayson, Tim Rodber and Matt Dawson, the Saints internationals at the centre of the latest spat between club and country. Unless Barwell decrees otherwise from his temporary lair in the French Alps, the Franklins Three will make themselves available for this summer's tour of the southern hemisphere and save Clive Woodward, the England coach, the trouble of dropping them from the remaining Five Nations matches with Scotland and Ireland.

"Clive has said he will not pick anyone unwilling to tour and we as a club are not prepared to allow our players to be isolated in this matter," McGeechan said. "Nobody wants to jeopardise their international chances. I would fully expect Northampton players to be included in the England squad for the game at Murrayfield on Sunday week."

There was no response from either Woodward or the Rugby Football Union last night, but there was no question of the Twickenham hierarchy rejecting McGeechan's common-sense attempt at conciliation. Grayson is now virtually certain to retain his place at outside-half - injuries to Mike Catt and Alex King leave the stand-off cupboard worryingly bare -and Rodber, playing his best rugby for some years, will challenge Tony Diprose for the vacant No 8 slot.

Ten days ago - 10 days that seem like a decade - Barwell threw the whole England issue into the melting pot by banning his players from this summer's ill-conceived tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Woodward reacted in gun-slinger fashion, firing off a salvo of threats and ultimatums that left no squad member in any doubt as to the consequences of withdrawal from the trip. As a result, all 12 Premiership clubs became embroiled in yet another round of shadow boxing with the union.

Although Barwell upped the ante by stating that rugby needed "a bloody good punch-up" to sort itself out, there was no escaping the fact that the entire England squad had signed up for the tour. His precipitate action left Grayson and company in the mire and pushed the clubs into a corner they would much rather have avoided. In short, he handed the RFU a public relations triumph on a plate.

McGeechan tried his level best to defend Barwell yesterday, saying: "Keith wanted to make the point that the players' interests were not being properly looked after and his sole purpose was to create a basis for discussion. Clive himself has admitted that this summer's tour is far from ideal." However, Northampton sources indicated that the coach was flabbergasted by the militancy of Barwell's stand and decided that if the owner was unwilling to break the impasse, he would have to do so himself.

Several club managements, Bath and Saracens included, were holding meetings with their players yesterday to appraise them of the latest political situation. "Northampton's climb-down means this particular issue is done and dusted," said one director of rugby. "There will be other issues, though. The next big fight will be over next season's England contracts, which will be put to the players in September."

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