Rugby Union: Resentful players ready for long slog

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The Independent Online
IN THE season of the World Cup, it is a curious rugby world which demands that pressure on players be turned down at the very time it is being turned higher than ever before. As it is now September, this is supposed to be the first Saturday, yet already there has been one round of league matches in Wales - followed by another today even though the English and Scottish club championships are still a week away.

As the England players are jaundiced at what is about to be demanded of them, imagine how the Welsh feel. At the very least, they all have nine relentless months of physical punishment ahead until the conclusion of the pool stage of next year's World Cup in South Africa.

In England, the season had not even begun when the number of matches World Cup candidates would have to play became - courtesy of the captain, Will Carling - the big issue. And as the governing body declines to dictate, it is being left to players and clubs to sort it out.

This would be the ideal solution in an amateur game but for the professional commitment being extracted from its players. The Rugby Football Union does not have the faintest idea what will happen next April, the World Cup then a mere month away, if First Division title and relegation issues remain to be decided, never mind the Cup final in May.

Club self-sacrifice should not be presumed. Too many league games? Bath arranged to play the Barbarians this afternoon to celebrate 100 years of rugby at the Recreation Ground, a pleasant diversion maybe but also yet another high-profile (and higher-pressure than some would pretend) fixture.

Too many league games? The RFU sets aside this weekend for England fitness-testing, only to find the clubs so edgy about their players' absence that the testing is brought forward to Thursday and Friday. As these are week days, you might imagine they would be still less convenient to the amateurs.

Elsewhere, Steve Pilgrim's Wasps return following his

suspension for his flirtation with rugby league gives curiousity value to the visit of Instonians from Belfast, as does the appointment of the Lions coach Ian McGeechan as Northampton's rugby director to the visit of Coventry.

In Wales, Treorchy's merciless introduction to First Division life continues at the champions, Swansea, after beginning (with a narrow defeat) at Neath and will continue at home to Llanelli on Wednesday. Clearly someone, somewhere does not care for the Zebras.

The England players have long since felt something similar about the RFU, though this week's fitness get-together did have a positive aspect in renewing not-so-old acquaintances. Jack Rowell, their manager, wants England to be the absolute priority. Dare one suggest that in his recent incarnation he might have felt otherwise? That was as coach of Bath.