Rugby Union: Moore's mix of front-row insight and bar-room jingoism

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN or, as we must now learn to call it, the Heineken Cup got off to a fairly encouraging start. It was good to see the English clubs competing once again, though that does little to redeem their controlling body in my eyes. Any organisation that can destroy two historic clubs, Richmond and London Scottish, simply to reduce the First Division from 14 to 12 deserves to be destroyed itself. Nor did the Rugby Football Union exactly cover itself in glory by standing idly by.

But that, as they say, is another story. I only hope that somebody tells it before memories become clouded and crucial documents are myster- iously lost. I have even got a title: The Strange Death of Richmond Rugby (because London Scottish also played at the Athletic Ground).

Still, London remains generously represented in the competition, with Harlequins, Saracens and Wasps all in the Cup, and only London Irish, beneficiary of the destruction of London Scottish and Richmond, in the supposedly second division Heineken Shield.

I write "supposedly" because the shield accommodates nine French clubs: Agen, Begles, Biarritz, Brive, Castres, Dax, Narbonne, Pau and Toulon. On playing ability, at least three of these clubs ought to have been in the Cup, with Padova, Treviso and - though I regret to say it - Neath moving down to the Shield.

There is not the slightest point in including Italian teams in the premier competition for the sake of a bogus national justice. Indeed, Italy's performance in the World Cup makes me wonder now whether it was a mistake to admit them to a Six Nations' Championship, though I admit that at the time I was in favour of the expansion.

The organisers of the Heineken Cup seem to be victims of World Cup-itis. There are too many pools, there are too few teams in the pools and they are ineptly composed in the pools. Instead of six pools of four clubs there ought to be four pools of five, with four clubs going down to the Shield. This would provide eight clubs for the quarter-finals, which would avoid the necessity for messy play-offs. As it is, we have not only play- offs but a pool containing Bath, Swansea and Toulouse.

No doubt it will provide us with some hard and entertaining rugby. It certainly did on Saturday at Bath. But the grouping could and should have been avoided all the same.

Like most people, I watched the match on television. Just as it was good to see English clubs back in the competition, so it was even better to see some rugby back on the BBC. There was a new pair of voices, those of Eddie Butler and Brian Moore. Both of them are friends or, at any rate, good acquaintances of mine. So what I have to say should be read in that light.

Moore proved to be a very good summariser indeed. His great merit is that, as a former England hooker, he is able to tell us about what is going on in the front row or, at least, to have a stab at it. As he said with perhaps unaccustomed modesty, he was not always sure himself, even in his playing days. But unlike every other commentator or summariser, he does not take refuge in phrases such as "murky world" and "dark practices".

He showed his ability in disputing the referee's award of a penalty to Bath for a scrummage infringement. He did this by showing the Bath tight- head prop lying at an angle of 90 degrees to the touch-line and 45 degrees to the ground. What position he would have been in had Christian Califano been against him I do not know.

Butler I had heard before as a summariser rather than a commentator, as he was on Saturday. His clear advantage in this competition is that, as a Cambridge graduate in modern languages, he speaks French and also knows where the towns are.

He would certainly not have made the mistake of the Eurosport presenter later in the day who described Bourgoin as "in the heart of French rugby country". It is nothing of the kind, being 43 kilometres east of Lyon and well on the way to Switzerland. There was once a BBC commentator, still around, who would constantly inform us that Colomiers was a suburb of Paris rather than of Toulouse.

Butler once told me that what he disliked about rugby was the nationalistic fervour it aroused. And yet on Saturday both he and Moore, an equally intelligent man, seemed at times to be in danger of behaving like football commentators.

Bath and Toulouse are beautiful cities, among the finest in Europe. I have spent many happy days in both, perhaps more in Toulouse than in Bath, though that is yet another story. And on Saturday I did not care which team won.