Rugby Union: Newcastle lay waste to Cotton's apocalypse

Chris Hewett salutes the rise in standards in the Premiership and a season of enthralling rugby union
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The Independent Online
THE communist credentials of Sir John Hall and Nigel Wray are rather less than impeccable, but Fran Cotton continues to pursue them with McCarthyite zeal. "They are failing England in every respect and we would be well rid of them," he storms in the latest dispatch from his witch-sniffer's chamber. Clearly, he will not rest until his bete noires are burned at the stake in central Twickenham and their private parts brought to him on an oval-shaped platter.

Hall and Wray have certainly acted with a degree of temerity in reinventing the English game; to be sure, Bath and Leicester may never forgive them for gatecrashing what used to be a very private party. But few of the hundreds of thousands of paying customers who patronised this season's Allied Dunbar Premiership are able to work out how the Cotton knickers - all white, presumably, with a red rose on each cheek - became so unfathomably twisted.

What those rank and file supporters witnessed between the middle of August and the middle of May was club rugby of a standard unimaginable a mere two years previously. Much of the dynamite was planted by Hall's Newcastle and Wray's Saracens, but not all of it; Richmond brought something new to the domestic scene, Gloucester enjoyed a startling and thoroughly heretical flirtation with the 15-man game and if the more traditional heavyweights flattered to deceive, some of that flattery was made of top-drawer material.

"The owner-clubs have made it clear that international and representative rugby are total irritants that constitute interference with their commercial interests," insists Fran, his famous chin jutting from coast to coast. "This will cause the demise of English rugby." Oh yeah? From where would Steve Ravenscroft, George Chuter, Danny Grewcock and Ben Sturnham emerged, if not from Saracens? Would Jonny Wilkinson have matured so rapidly outside Newcastle's profoundly professional dressing-room culture? Who brought Spencer Brown and Dominic Chapman to the notice of the England selectors, if not Richmond?

Consult experienced Welsh internationals like Scott Quinnell and Adrian Davies and they will tell you the principality is awash with front-line players desperate for a move across the Severn Bridge. Cottonites will of course accuse them of being in it for the money, but the fact of the matter is that after a single season of Premiership rugby, England can now point to a high-profile club competition that bears comparison with the French championship. Rob Andrew puts in on a par with the Five Nations while Francois Pienaar, no less, places it alongside Super 12. They should know.

"It has been a privilege to be part of something that has set the game alight in this country," said Andrew on Sunday, serene in the afterglow of Premiership triumph. "The Baths and Leicesters, the Harlequins and Wasps, have been central to the club scene for many years, but there is a new wave in English rugby now and as a result, we are witnessing an explosion of interest. Some of the sights these past few weeks have been astonishing, way beyond anything we could have hoped for when the sport went pro."

When Andrew steps back and considers what he has achieved at Kingston Park, he will be more astonished still; for all the class and cosmopolitan chic of Saracens, it was Newcastle who defined the Premiership with their intense brand of unashamedly physical rugby. They were cast early on as the villains of the piece - the establishment hated them because of Hall's abrasive setting of the market rate, the purists loathed them for their "route one" style and opponents feared them for the simple reason that no one enjoys being beaten up. All of which was mere grist to the Geordie mill.

They were even able to take a principled stand in marginalising Tim Stimpson, the England and Lions full-back who, in many eyes, was the highest-flying Falcon in the nest. Stimpson's contractual contretemps restricted him to 11 senior appearances, two of them as a replacement, and yesterday's confirmation of his move to Leicester will not have caused a flicker of an eyelid on Tyneside. The startling emergence of Stuart Legg as a wing- heeled offensive runner is consolation enough.

Newcastle went about their business with a single-minded sobriety that made a mockery of Cotton's more apocalyptic suspicions; if Andrew, Dean Ryan, Steve Bates and the rest of the senior Falconry are indeed the enemy within, they have pursued their seditious ambitions in very peculiar fashion. The revanchist wing of the rugby establishment will never admit it in public, or perhaps to themselves, but the new champions have built their house on the foundations of model professionalism.

There will be a different look to them next season; Alan Tait, such a ship-steadying influence in midfield, may soon decide to knock it on the head - "I think I've done my bit," he said on Sunday night - and recent performances suggest that Nick Popplewell and Va'aiga Tuigamala are descending the far side of the mountain. But then, Saracens must also reorganise now that Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella have opted for pipe and slippers.

In fact, every Premiership side will spend the summer upping next season's ante; Bath and Leicester have already committed themselves to buying big, as have Sale. (It would be interesting to know exactly how Cotton's increasingly dinosaurian splutterings are viewed by his local club). The new 14-team format is well over the top - a quality control expert would describe 12 as just about workable and 10 as spot on - but with Bedford, that grand old rugby town, back on the boards and West Hartlepool consolidating the North-east revival, rugby is very much on the map. All of the map.

Chris Hewett's Premiership dream team

15 Chris Catling (Gloucester)

Simply the best counter-attacking full-back in town.

14 Ryan Constable (Saracens)

Bags of pace, plenty of brainpower and no fuss.

13 Allan Bateman (Richmond)

Majestic. Everybody's favourite midfield maestro.

12 Philippe Sella (Saracens)

No linguist, but one hell of a centre. He'll be missed.

11 Austin Healey (Leicester)

Cheeky chappie or complete wind-up? You're the judge.

10 Michael Lynagh (Saracens)

He had the lot, damn him. Nobody did it better.

9 Agustin Pichot (Richmond)

Under-valued, under-paid but still over here. Just.

1 Roberto Grau (Saracens)

An absolute bear of a man. Just don't let him hug you.

2 Ross Nesdale (Newcastle)

The very epitome of the unsung hero. Outstanding.

3 Paul Wallace (Saracens)

Plays by his own rules and gets away with

murder.

4 Doddie Weir (Newcastle)

The best line-out forward in Europe by two clear feet.

5 Danny Grewcock (Saracens)

Big, quick, aggressive. What more do you want?

6 Tony Diprose (Saracens)

Out of position here, but class knows no boundaries.

7 Pat Lam (Newcastle)

The isotonic islander. A peerless all-round loosie.

8 Dean Ryan (Newcastle)

Because every side needs a bit of nasty. Bless him.

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