Rugby Union: Potential net loss from worldwide web

Chris Hewett considers the England coach's problems after the influx of foreign players for the coming season, which starts on Saturday
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The Independent Online
Jack Rowell has not, as far as anyone knows, been diagnosed as suffering from acute paranoia, but he may soon feel obliged to seek a little solace in the nearest psychiatrist's chair. Two recurring torments afflicted England's put-upon coach last season and he must now be uncomfortably aware that far from evaporating in the heat of the summer break, they will be back to haunt him when the new campaign laces up its boots and trundles through the dressing-room door on Saturday.

The most pressing bane of Rowell's life last term was the apparent determination of sundry Rugby Football Union types to insert a knife between his shoulder blades and judging by the recent activities of Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, and Fran Cotton, vice-chairman of Twickenham's management board, the stainless steel weaponry is being sharpened with renewed vigour. But in public, at least, the coach was more concerned at what he considered the most insidious development in the domestic club game: namely, the tidal wave of foreign "mercenaries" landing at Heathrow and heading straight for England's rugby heartlands.

Not just overseas players, either; how about two-thirds of the Irish international side, half of the Scottish Five Nations line-up and a liberal sprinkling of dollar-chasing Welshmen into the bargain? If Rowell voiced his anxiety once last season, he voiced it a dozen times, effectively asking: "How in heaven's name can I pick an England side when we don't have any Englishmen playing top-flight club rugby?"

A good question, getting better by the day. No matter how many points the spectacularly accomplished All Blacks score when they arrive in these islands in November, the most staggering statistic of the coming nine months is likely to show that on any given weekend, between 45 and 50 per cent of those taking the field for Allied Dunbar Premiership One matches will be non-English. Rugby is not merely mirroring the trend set in motion by football, but taking it into another dimension altogether.

On average, the 12 top-flight clubs will probably field seven imports, although as far as the England for the English brigade is concerned, some are far more culpable than others. Newly promoted Richmond will be the Little Englanders' No 1 bogey club, for now that Matthew Pini, Jason Wright, Augustin Pichot, Rolando Martin, Barry Williams and John Davies - for the record, an Australian, a New Zealander, two Argentinians and a couple of Welshmen - have joined an already cosmopolitan Athletic Ground squad, it is perfectly possible that only four home-grown products will find a regular place in the shop window.

Leicester, who spent the first half of last season fielding 15 Englishmen and winning plaudits for their stance from those of protectionist persuasion, have now learned the words to "The Internationale" and head-hunted two Fijians and a second Springbok to keep Joel Stransky company. Gloucester, of all people, could well field a threequarter line consisting of the French Saint-Andre brothers, Richie Tombs, of Australia, and Terry Fanolua, from Western Samoa - something that really will take some believing among the tough nuts of Matson and Coney Hill, who regard the Forest of Dean as the 10th planet of the solar system.

An early glance at the squad lists suggests that Wasps, the reigning champions, and Sale will field more Englishmen than most, although the Londoners have netted Mark Weedon, from New Zealand, and Trevor Leota, from Western Samoa, during the recess, while the Cheshire club have pulled in Shane Howarth, a former All Black full-back, plus a brace of Welsh scrum-halves.

Far from expressing alarm at club rugby's worldwide draft fixation, the bright-eyed and businesslike Premiership administrators from the English Rugby Partnership talk breathlessly of bums on seats and bigger, better bank balances. They believe, openly and unashamedly, that the selling of their "product" to a new generation of spectators must take precedence over the sensibilities of the traditional "never mind the ball, get on with the game" rank and file.

And by and large, the players are buying into that philosophy. "Yes, we have a responsibility to the English national side - a side I've been fortunate enough to be a part of in the past and very much want to be involved with in the future," said Ben Clarke, the Richmond captain, who will spend the foreseeable future speaking in tongues to a colourful menagerie of Wallabies, Pumas and Dragons. "It's a difficult issue, but on balance I think the overseas players and those from other parts of the British Isles have brought a higher standard to the English leagues. That expertise, of course, helps youngsters working their way up through the grades.

"Personally speaking, I have no problem with captaining a side drawn from so many different points of the compass. We're all working towards a common goal, all want to achieve something as a side and for the club. Where I do have a problem is with clubs who show no interest in developing their own talent but merely feed off others. At Richmond we have an enormous mini rugby section - 90 players at under-seven level, for instance - and we're building a development side. In the end, that work will be as crucial in helping us thrive in the top flight as any outside purchases we may make."

Sound sentiments from a sound rugby man, but whether Clarke can persuade his old mentor, Jack Rowell, of the lasting benefits of a melting pot Premiership is open to debate. When an England coach goes looking for a new outside-half or hooker and finds eight of the 12 on view hail from the high veldt or the pampas rather than Ealing Broadway or the Somerset levels, global village virtues tend to lose their lustre.

Richmond's cosmopolitan XV

15 Matthew Pini (Australia)

14 Jim Fallon (England)

13 Allan Bateman (Wales)

12 Steve Cottrell (New Zealand)

11 Jason Wright (New Zealand)

10 Adrian Davies (Wales)

9 Augustin Pichot (Argentina)

1 Darren Crompton (England)

2 Barry Williams (Wales)

3 John Davies (Wales)

4 Craig Quinnell (Wales)

5 Richard West (England)

6 Ben Clarke (England)

8 Scott Quinnell (Wales)

7 Rolando Martin (Argentina)

Premiership Overseas XV

15 W Serevi (Leicester/Fiji)

14 P Saint-Andre (Gloucester/Fr)

13 P Sella (Saracens/Fr)

12 G Rees (Wasps/Can)

11 V Tuigamala (Newcastle/NZ)

10 J Stransky (Leicester/SA)

9 A Pichot (Richmond/Arg)

1 L Benezech (Harlequins/Fr)

2 F Mendez (Bath/Arg)

3 M Cuttitta (Harlequins/It)

4 F van Heerden (Leicester/SA)

5 G Llanes (Bath/Arg)

6 F Pienaar (Saracens/SA)

8 D Lyle (Bath/US)

7 R Martin (Richmond/Arg)