Rugby Union: Not all the best rugby is played at Twickenham

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The Independent Online
"WE'RE GIVING England 48 hours to come back in," a colleague on the sports desk of this paper said to me a week ago when I was fretting to him on the telephone about whether I had sufficiently covered the stirring events of the day.

In the event, the rover's return took rather less time, nearer 24 hours. It was celebrated by Bill Beaumont and Brian Baister of the Rugby Football Union, and Allan Hosie of the Five Nations committee, over pints of beer in the Glasgow pub (or bar, for Glasgow does not possess what I would call proper pubs) Drum and Monkey, which seems an appropriate name somehow in the circumstances.

Baister and the RFU's "chief executive", Francis Baron, remind me of the two little dickie birds sitting on the wall in the rhyme: Fly away Brian, fly away Frank; Come back Brian, come back Frank.

They remind me also of George Brown, the Labour cabinet minister of the 1960s. Brown was forever threatening to resign and being dissuaded from taking this course. Every so often he would flounce out but would be persuaded to return to the fold in... well, in about the time it takes for the RFU to restore England to the Five Nations' Championship.

There came a point, however, when Brown resigned over the relatively trivial matter of a lack of consultation with him about the closing of the banks during a financial crisis. And this time his resignation was accepted. That was the end of George Brown.

I am not predicting that the same thing is going to happen to England, but there is clearly a danger of it happening.

In the Independent on Sunday two days ago, Chris Rea wrote that the real reason why the RFU's representatives were behaving as they were had less to do with the apportionment of Sky monies, French television arrangements or the entry of Italy into the Five Nations than with the union's wish to set up a new competition involving the southern hemisphere nations. This competition would include England and, preferably, France as well but exclude Italy and the Celtic nations.

I was encouraged that Rea's view was more or less the same as mine, which I expressed here last week: that the evidence is that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are quite happy with their present arrangements, though they may undertake more (in my opinion, too many) European tours when it suits them to do so. But they have no wish to enter into any permanent relationship with England; even less so if France exclude themselves from it.

The evidence, again, is that the French have an affectionate regard for the Five (soon to be Six) Nations, and have no wish to leave home to take up with new partners who may possess all kinds of strange ways. Not even the most tunnel-visioned England supporter would maintain that, season in and season out, England have been the superior team to France over the past decade or so.

Certainly the English revival of the 1980s was a triumph for players and managers: for Geoff Cooke, Jack Rowell, Will Carling and Brian Moore, to name only a few. But times change. Moore is a solicitor and a broadcaster. Poor (or it may be rich) Carling is a discredited figure, largely through his own fault. Rowell is associated with Bristol, Cooke is out of a job or, perhaps, is between jobs. For it looks as if he will join Bath after what must have been an unsettling time for him at Bedford.

True, England beat South Africa. But then, Wales very nearly beat them, too. As colleagues have written many times already, it looks like being the most open Five Nations for years. Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, still needs to find two wings of international class (for Gareth Thomas is injured), a loose-head prop and, perhaps, a second row partner for Craig Quinnell.

The kindest thing to say about Scotland is that they may surprise us yet. On current form, it looks as if the good-value bet is Ireland. Admittedly Dick Best's first-choice London Irish have, at most, only half a dozen Irish players in the side. Even so, Conor O'Shea, Justin Bishop, Niall Woods and Malcolm O'Kelly will be even better players this season than they were before.

And if Ulster win the European Cup at Dublin on Saturday, Irish confidence will be trebled. Jonathan Bell and Rob Henderson (if fit) are not going to be frightened by the Scott Gibbs of this world. David Humphreys at last looks like fulfilling his promise and potential.

Perhaps the RFU should accept for the time being that not all the best rugby in the British Isles is played at Twickenham.