Rugby Union: Raring to go, but where to?

Summer chaos has hamstrung players, clubs and fans, says Mark Evans, Saracens' rugby director
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The Independent Online
SO AFTER all the machinations and backtracking of the past week British rugby agrees that an integrated league is an excellent idea; but can't get past the intransigence and vested interest of a few anonymous administrators.

Apparently the problem is that a few toes would be trodden on if we went ahead - something about a legal challenge threatening the sanctity of International Rugby Board regulations. Call me old-fashioned but I would have thought that a project that commanded widespread support and offered the real prospect of a radical solution to the interminable problems of the last few years would be well worth ruffling the odd feather for.

This, remember, is the exact same IRB whose good offices were so contemptuously ignored by the Southern Hemisphere nations when they set up their own SANZA competition immediately after the 1995 World Cup. That was a far more revolutionary step, which plunged world rugby into the maelstrom of professionalism and almost sunk emerging nations, such as Western Samoa and Canada, in the process. I cannot recall too many calls for expulsion and reprimands on that occasions - so why are we so hamstrung now?

The reaction in Wales has been vitriolic. It is not an exaggeration to say that the game there is in crisis with poor crowds, financial problems and low morale. Suddenly it is presented with a viable structure, which gave their players access to a much higher standard of competition, and yet their own union decides that there insurmountable obstacles. Just who is the game being run for?

In the past it could be argued that the players' needs were paramount - but those days have gone. In the world of professional sport the customer is king. I have yet to hear any rugby fan say they do not want to see Cardiff play Newcastle, or Swansea take on Bath. Indeed what they would really love to see is the European League in which the likes of Brive, Toulouse and Agen are added to the mix.

These are the views that really matter - the wishes of the men, women and children who come through the turnstiles. Instead they are faced with another year of Caerphilly versus Bridgend, West Hartlepool meeting London Scottish and the Edinburgh Reivers playing anyone who can give them a game. If it wasn't so pathetic it would be tragic.

On a day-to-day basis, players and coaches block out the constant politicking and get on with their pre-season preparations. So far as we are concerned the season starts in three weeks' time and everything is geared to that.

Sessions at this time of the year are pretty brutal and are as much a test of mental toughness as physical conditioning. Very few players actively enjoy pre-season but after one year of full-time training the squad is in noticeably better shape to cope.

Three-kilometre time-trials, body fat tests, and heavyweight training programmes are the order of the day. New game-plans and tactics are being developed, new signings integrated and new equipment tested out. Occasionally, the routine is interrupted by a press day, goal-setting session or a warm- up game but other than that the training continues uninterrupted. Believe it or not, the attitude is that we'll play whoever is put in front of us. All we can do is concentrate on those things we can control and aim to produce a high level of performance within the context of whatever competitive structure eventually emerges.

In other areas of the club the consequences of collective confusion are much more serious. How does a relatively new professional sport market itself without an agreed fixture list? The sale of season tickets becomes incredibly difficult and the matching of corporate sponsors to specific games impossible. I can think of no other sport which has got itself into such an almighty mess. Every commercial department in every club is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. Every week bring news of another Neath, Moseley, Coventry or Bristol.

And somewhere, dimly lurking in the future, lies the real worry. Namely the chance that all this self-inflicted chaos will, at some point, so infuriate and anger the game's supporters that they will simply give up the ghost. Rugby has always drawn upon a reservoir of largely untapped goodwill. Instinctively its followers have always given it the benefit of the doubt but such patience is not inexhaustible - another year of in-fighting could result in a real downturn in public interest (and with it TV coverage). If that happens I wonder how much help we can expect from the IRB and what sort of game the domestic unions will have left to preside over?