Rugby Union: Pot runs dry as England run riot

Chris Rea says time and money is at a premium to solve rugby's great squabble
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The Independent Online
THE game, we are told, is moving onwards and upwards at great pace. The players are fitter, faster and unquestionably wealthier than ever before as professionalism reaches the parts unexplored in the Corinthian era. Yet rugby, it seems to me, is at the same crossroads it approached, perplexed and bewildered, 12 months ago. The political in-fighting is, if anything, meaner and more brutal in the savagery of the exchanges. One way or another the end is nigh. The debts incurred by the clubs are mounting by the day and some, no longer able or willing to continue the unequal struggle, have fallen by a wayside also littered with redundant coaches.

The chill of financial hardship is the main reason behind the drastic and dramatic restructuring of the game in Scotland, reducing the number of full-time professionals to just 60. Even so, the annual cost of professionalism in the whole of Scotland is likely to be less than the average wage bill for a first division club south of the border. Somewhere, the sums don't add up but it is not difficult to trace the source of financial irresponsibility to the leading clubs in England.

The repercussions of their proposed European boycott next season will be severe. The Premiership clubs stand to lose pounds 6m resulting from their non- participation in the tournament together with the penalty payments to the RFU for breach of contract. The clubs claim to present a united front on this issue but this is not so. A number are more than a little upset at the prospect of their absence from the most lucrative of the club competitions. Whatever the clubs do decide, it is unthinkable that England will not have a presence in Europe next season even if it means trawling the Jewson Leagues for players and creating representative sides for them to play in. In yet another reckless exercise in foot-shooting the clubs are also likely to lose their fight to increase the Premiership to 28 which is a further example of short-term expediency for the few taking precedence over long-term benefit for the majority and which, were the clubs to have their way, would inevitably lead to more chaos in the structure of the domestic season.

It is all intensely damaging, frustrating and, for those who just want to get on with the game, unutterably boring. But unless these issues which are critical to rugby's future, are resolved there won't be much of a game. It is not, as some commentators would have us believe, a simple matter of a clash of personalities any more than it is about the clubs' undoubted success in improving their product and widening the game's appeal. It is the price the game has to pay for that success enjoyed by fewer than 12 clubs in England which, as things stand, is much too high. Cliff Brittle's accusers are quick to pour contempt on him for what they perceive as gross arrogance but they aren't so lively when it comes to attacking the principles on which he has been fighting his often lonely crusade to protect the game as a whole and not just the selfish interests of England's elite clubs.

That England did, after all, have a first-choice side to call upon for the Calcutta Cup last weekend was a triumph for those in power at Twickenham but yet another kick in the teeth for the Scots who, every year and with increasing generosity, are surrendering more records to the Auld Enemy. Where then do England stand as they contemplate their fourth consecutive Triple Crown? Along with the rest of the game, probably at the very same crossroads they were at under Jack Rowell. There were remarkable similarities between the victory over the Scots last week and their record triumph against the same opponents at Twickenham last season. Last Sunday the Scots had a grim third quarter in which they leaked points and lost the match. Once the full might of the England pack had taken its toll in that period of punitive scrummaging on the Scottish line, the result was never in doubt although in truth the game was up by half-time when the Scots, who had played out of their boots, had scored no more points than England who, in that period, appeared to be playing without their boots.

The question remains whether or not England have made any significant progress under Clive Woodward. His selections, like Rowell's before him, have been curiously inconsistent. The treatment of Matt Perry and the reinstatement of Mike Catt at full-back for the French match were examples of the practice not matching the theory as was the recall of Dean Ryan whose game is so far removed from Woodward's stated vision that one wondered what possible role he could play unless the strategy had been to bludgeon the Scots into oblivion.

It was the safety net which Rowell found irresistible in times of stress and it would be disappointing if Woodward were to yield to the same temptation. He knows that, against the southern hemisphere countries when the best that England can expect is parity up front, it takes a sophistication beyond raw strength to win. So far this season England have used their backs as cosmetic enhancements to improve the margin of victory rather than, as the Welsh did at Lansdowne Road, to secure the victory.

There have been times, notably against France and during the first half at Murrayfield, when the English backs have lacked the creative touches to break down well-marshalled defences. This must be frustrating for Woodward because, individually, his backs are quality players and in Paul Grayson they now have a first-class director of operations at fly-half.

Jeremy Guscott, manacled to the bench for most of last season, is not quite the free spirit of old when his blazing talent could alter the course of a match, and the uneasy feeling persists that the changes Woodward has made have not yet removed England's dependency on the absolute control of their forwards to win matches. That control, however, as we saw against France earlier in the season, is no longer as absolute as it once was.