Rugby Union: Purely selective home thoughts from abroad

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The Independent Online
WHEN THE leagues were set up in England, some time before the onset of professionalism, the Rugby Football Union (as the English Rugby Union somewhat conceitedly calls itself) tried to insist on a quota system for those players not qualified for the national side. The figure suggested, as I remember, was two in any match XV.

This represented a slightly more generous attitude on the part of the RFU than its approach towards the divisional sides. There it succeeded in enforcing the rule that every member of the team had to be qualified for England. The divisional matches were, or were supposed to be, England trials, though I rarely observed any great influence which they exerted over the selectors. Most of the games (except those involving the touring sides) were watched by two men and a dog. I cannot for the life of me see why various misguided persons, led by Fran Cotton, are pressing to revive their importance.

The restrictive proposals of the English authorities for the leagues were struggling for life from their moment of birth. The onset of professionalism has killed them off completely. The reason lies in the laws of the European Union relating to competition and the free movement of labour. The upshot is that an English side is restricted to two overseas players, defined as players from outside the Union, and an unlimited number from countries within the EU.

Even those who, you might have thought, did not qualify for this latter category turn out to do so. Thus Joel Stransky of Leicester claims to be an Austrian rather than a South African. Federico Mendez of Northampton, formerly of Bath, is an Argentinian who possesses a Spanish passport.

The result is that our leading rugby clubs are becoming as cosmopolitan as the football clubs of the Premier Division. A Saracens first-choice side would include only six players qualified for England: Steve Ravenscroft, Kyran Bracken, George Chuter, Danny Grewcock, Tony Diprose and Richard Hill. It is claimed that Ravenscroft's partner, Jeremy Thomson, a South African who toured with his country though he never played in a Test, is also England-qualified. But of that, more later.

Richmond are, if anything, even more starved of English talent, with two outstanding wings in Dominic Chapman and Spencer Brown, Ben Clarke, of course, and a couple of other forwards who might one day make the national side.

The forcing out of English players is, as we know, most evident at outside- half. One of the most piquant sounds of last week was the cheer that went up from assorted rugby writers on first hearing the news that Richard Butland was moving to Richmond.

It was piquant for several reasons. Butland could not get into the Bath side regularly, he may not get into the Richmond side either if Adrian Davies maintains his fitness and form, and anyway he is a South African.

This brings me to one of the developing scandals of the game: the way in which national qualifications are changed and picked up as if they were winter overcoats.

It is not entirely new. Fifty or so years ago the England selectors shamelessly, but without complaint, picked Clive van Ryneveld and Murray Hofmeyr from South Africa, Basil Traverse from Australia and Ian Botting from New Zealand, merely because they happen to be at Oxford University at the time.

During the same period the Scots capped the Australian flanker Doug Keller. And the New Zealanders have long regarded Western Samoa as a kind of private orchard from which they can pluck players such as the great Bryan Williams virtually at will. Nor was I entirely happy about the more recent award of Welsh caps to the New Zealanders Dale McIntosh and Hemi Taylor.

The last two had not been capped by their country and were living permanently in Wales. Jamie Salmon had been capped by New Zealand but had settled permanently in England. There was some talk of John Gallagher playing for Ireland although nothing came of that.

Nevertheless, I should like to propose two rules. First, a cap for one country commits you to that country for the rest of your playing life. Second, residence in England or anywhere else means that you intend to settle there rather than that you are playing out the autumn of your days there. An application of these rules would mean that the New Zealanders Simon Mannix, of Gloucester, and Shane Howarth, of Sale, could not be capped by England and Wales respectively. And a good thing too.