Rugby Union: RFU lifts pressure on England men: Divided loyalties still a problem

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The Independent Online
THE ENGLAND players have finally had their way by persuading the Rugby Football Union to lay down a limit on the club matches they need to play during this hectic World Cup season.

The effect will be felt most obviously by the likes of Bath and Leicester with their big England contingents and the fact that Twickenham is unwilling to make its restrictions mandatory will still leave players and clubs with divided loyalties at the climax of the domestic programme.

The RFU yesterday confirmed it was proceeding with proposals sent to clubs three weeks ago which will grant the England XV for the Romania game on 12 November leave of absence from their clubs a week earlier when Bath are at Sale, Leicester at Bristol and Wasps, the other 100 per cent team, at Orrell.

The current England squad of 34 have requested exemption from playing again after the Romania game until England meet Canada back at Twickenham on 10 December but the RFU has yet to decide whether all 34 or only the 21 involved in that match will be permitted to miss the Divisional Championship on the three preceding Saturdays.

There will, however, be pre-international Saturdays off on 14 January, 11 February, though everyone is permitted to be present and correct for the Pilkington Cup fifth- round ties on 28 January, a week before England meet France. Indeed the cup is completely excused the RFU's player restrictions, even after the World Cup squad of 26 have been named at the end of March.

From then onwards the RFU expects England players to play in no more than two of the fixtures which run from the cup semi-final on 1 April through the climactic last four league games to the cup final on 6 May. 'We don't want to cast it in stone,' Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, said yesterday. 'There may be some who will have to play three but generally we think they will get away with two.'

We have by no means heard the end of this. When April comes, the pressure on players will come less from England or their clubs than from within themselves if they have league or cup - or avoiding relegation - on their minds. Already Dean Richards, the England No 8 and Leicester captain, has made it clear that he would rather play.

The RFU also hit back against its critics on another front yesterday, denying there had been any rift between it and its players on the vexed and increasingly monotonous subject of amateurism. That is not how Brian Moore, the England hooker, was telling it last month.

On the one hand Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, was pleased to point out that almost every English club involved in competition rugby had signed the union's declaration of compliance, a piece of paper designed to put clubs on their honour not to breach amateur regulations.

As for the England players, though, he did accept that they and the union differed on the pace of change. 'There are discussions taking place with leading players the whole time. Of course players would say these developments are taking too long because their lifetime at the top is not necessarily going on too much longer.'

Among recent developments, the RFU has agreed to pay up to the permitted pounds 40-a- day limit for hardship while on international duty. Discussions which may ultimately lead to players' being allowed to advertise while wearing rugby kit and to be paid for promoting the game have been taking place.

'The important thing is to get the right answer: what is best for the game,' Wood said. 'My strong feeling is it would be disastrous for rugby union football to go professional. Quite apart from changing the nature of the game, the money isn't there to sustain it. Rugby League is running a deficit of pounds 3m a year and that's a very small game; our game would run at a much greater deficit than that.'

The International Rugby Board secretary, Keith Rowlands, is to ask the Welsh Rugby Union to investigate Alan Davies' comments after Saturday's international in

Bucharest, when the Welsh coach claimed that player's lives were at risk in the high temperatures. Rowlands, the former Wales and Lions lock, is to report his comments to the WRU and said: 'It was a highly irresponsible and ill-advised comment.'

Referees at all Courage League First Division fixtures after Christmas will be wired up to their senior touch-judge, whose principal role will be to watch out for midfield offside as well as touch and foul play.

Bath's England squad members, John Hall and Jon Callard, will miss the league game against Orrell on Saturday because of injury.