Rugby Union: New laws face up to old habits: Revised regulations and team sheets should bring flair and fair play in the English season. Chris Rea examines the chances

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The Independent Online
HAS there been a fuss to compare with the whinge-binge in the wake of England's desultory performance at Welford Road last week? Not from the England camp, mind you, but from the media. You would have thought that Leicester had done a spot of surreptitious seam-picking, which would, of course, have accounted for the indifferent kicking throughout the match. It was a game of precious little skill and imagination in which many of the bad old habits surfaced or, to be more accurate, went all too readily to ground.

England's forwards were particularly at fault in this respect, unaccountably so given the edict issued before the World Cup to stay on their feet. Their rucking was untidy and they drove several steps too far into the mauls. 'Thank you very much,' said Dean Richards, that master poacher in the game's darker recesses. In short, it would have been a rotten game regardless of the new laws. As it was, the small object of the media's ire was the addition to laws 21 and 22, possession of the ball at the rucks and mauls, still in its infancy. Goodness only knows how we will cope when it reaches puberty, although from the hue and cry so far, it will be dead and buried long before then.

Like it or not - and I still believe that the law contains more good than bad, despite its inherent injustice - we are stuck with it at least for this season, and it is the clubs who must first come to terms with it. The Heineken Welsh League is already under way; the Courage leagues begin next Saturday. There has been some serious squad-strengthening going on during the summer months, not all of which has found favour at RFU headquarters. But in a season in which four clubs will be relegated from the First Division and seven from the Second, the incipient panic is understandable. Nor is it misplaced in certain quarters.

The dirty dozen who have deserted Kingsholm no doubt have their reasons, but it has left Gloucester perilously short of playing strength, although few of the defectors would have commanded a regular place in the first team. Nevertheless the departure of Mike Teague to Moseley is a savage blow, while the loss of the hooker Kevin Dunn to Wasps leaves the club short of experienced cover in a crucial position. To the outside world, Teague was something of a legend at Kingsholm, but perhaps he felt that he was a prophet without sufficient honour in his own domain.

Either way Gloucester must somehow paper over the cracks and hope that promising young players like Tony Windo, Andy Deacon, Richard West and Neil Matthews, make the grade. Gloucester have a daunting start with successive away fixtures against London Scottish and Leicester, both of whom would dearly have liked to pin their colours on Craig Chalmers. They were in a queue along with Harlequins, Wasps and Rugby whose dismal start to the season offers very little hope of First Division survival. Not only were they thwarted in their attempt to get Chalmers, but they lost out to London Irish in their efforts to attract the Ireland No 8, Brian Robinson.

The humiliation of a 76-0 defeat by Northampton on the first day of the season was hardly the best preparation for the rigours of the League, although Rugby had to concede that their opponents that evening produced a sublime exhibition of skilful attacking rugby. Northampton, with their prudent recruitment, effective youth policy and enlightened stewardship, have emerged, along with Bath and Harlequins, as the likeliest contenders for the League title. Unlike Harlequins, who must play Bath next Saturday at the Recreation Ground, Northampton have at least the advantage of a home fixture against the champions. The Saints squad has been further strengthened by the arrival of Nick Beal, whose early- season publicity has not only whetted the appetite of the spectators, but has also forewarned opponents. Other newcomers include Peter Walton, a strapping loose forward from Newcastle Gosforth, and another 6ft 10in giant, Derwyn Jones, to set alongside Martin Bayfield.

Harlequins' abject failure to apply themselves with the same enthusiasm to the prosaic but ultimately rewarding job of winning the League as they do in the more glamorous quest for Cup glory surely cannot continue. Bob Templeton, one of the world's most erudite coaches and one of the game's greatest enthusiasts, has, in a short time at The Stoop, managed to get across a number of harsh lessons, notably in the areas of fitness and aggression. He returns to Australia later this week, having prepared the side for the Bath game but, after the Wallabies tour to Ireland and Wales, he will be with Harlequins until the end of the season. Having successfully concluded their record sponsorship deal, and having obtained planning permission for a new stand, this may at last be the season when Harlequins can deliver the League championship.

Beating Bath on Saturday would be a mighty step in the right direction. Bath's line-out, a problem area for some time, will be immeasurably strengthened by the arrival of Sean O'Leary. They have also unearthed a promising understudy for Stuart Barnes in Craig Raymond, who gave an impressive display at fly-half in Bath United's recent 63-0 victory over Pontypool Athletic.

Orrell, Wasps, Leicester and, one hopes, Saracens, may not be strong enough to challenge for the title, but are much too good to go down. Orrell await the outcome of the scan on Bob Kimmins's back with mounting trepidation, particularly now that their other first- choice lock, Charles Cusani, may not always be available on Saturdays because of work commitments.

Wasps, as usual, look good on paper and with new recruits such as Matt Greenwood and Simon Holmes, will have a back row as strong as any in the League. But in the murk and grime of midwinter the shine may come off their promised philosophy of adventure and enterprise.

History, short as it is, does not favour the teams newly promoted. And this season may be no different, with London Scottish and West Hartlepool struggling to stay above the bottom four along with Rugby, Bristol, possibly London Irish and, heaven forfend, Gloucester.

(Photograph omitted)