Rugby Union: Rugby fans all stressed up with nowhere to go

Jonathan Davies laments the latest argument between club and country
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The Independent Online
Rugby's hopes for 1998 depend on how quickly we can shake 1997's turmoil out of the system. But there's a fat chance of progress in that direction unless the game's administrators start immediately to find a way out of the maze of conflicts created over the past year or so.

Situations like that existing on my own doorstep in Cardiff don't give much confidence. As in other parts of the country, Christmas rugby in South Wales has always been a part of the holiday to look forward to and the best fixtures were earmarked for this period. Any chance, however, of the fans of Cardiff and Pontypridd savouring their teams' encounter at the Arms Park on Saturday have been ruined by a total disagreement between Cardiff and the Welsh Rugby Union on the kick-off time. The WRU want the game to start at 6pm so that it can be shown live on the Welsh channel S4C and have instructed the Pontypridd team and the match officials to be ready at that time.

But Cardiff insist on their usual kick-off time of 2.30pm. Since they receive no money from television, because they refuse to sign an agreement with the WRU, they feel they should stick to the time their supporters and hospitality-box occupants prefer.

With neither side prepared to budge an inch, that was how things stood over Christmas when the only possible solution seemed to be for Cardiff to play against invisible opponents at 2.30pm, Pontypridd to do the same at 6pm and for the television people to stick both films together and make a game of it.

These club v country confrontations are not confined to Wales, and the longer they are allowed to fester the more dangerous it is to the future of rugby. The most important people in any game are the fans who turn up regularly and they seem to be the last to be considered. Watching rugby, or any game for that matter, is a habit and we are breaking the habit too frequently. It is bad enough that the season is so difficult for the fans to follow as it switches from competition to competition but to take games out of their natural afternoon slots is taking a big risk in losing their loyalty altogether.

We should be working now to build a structure for next season that will set out a clear menu for the fans to follow. Even then it might not be easy for the traditionalists to accept. It has been a couple of years since rugby league switched to summer but I'm sure that many a league fan spent the festive season yearning for the old battles, instead of lukewarm friendlies, that used to liven up the scene.

But at least they know where they are whereas the union fans have been thrown into a world of confusion that will lead only to disenchantment. It is pointless the clubs or the unions fighting for fixture lists that suit their own purposes. Nothing lasting will be achieved until they piece together a season's pattern that will work for everyone - players, clubs, countries and fans.

It would help, for instance, if we began next season with domestic league matches for six or eight weeks before stepping into the European Cup. This season, we were into the European action before our domestic competitions had taken any shape at all and even now it is very difficult to come to terms with what is happening in our leagues and cups.

The spate of international matches we had in the first half of the season would have strengthened the finances of the unions but it was at a big cost to the patience of those interested in club rugby - still the backbone of the game. One or two internationals help to spice up the pre-Christmas programme but any more just adds to the confusion. Clubs do need to establish a settled set of fixtures so that their supporters can get back into the regular rugby habit.

The present season has already proved that it is no good hastily throwing together a new competition and trying to persuade the fans that it means something. Both the Welsh Challenge Trophy and the Cheltenham and Gloucester Cup in England have provided very little attraction.

We need the firm foundations of domestic leagues played largely in the first and fourth quarters of the season with the Euro Cup and the home internationals dominating the middle. I believe there would be also room, and a market, for a British Cup to add extra interest.

I'm pleased to see the new proposals put forward by the RFU do recognise the need for strong domestic leagues for their top 24 clubs. Club rugby is such a vital part of our tradition and although the thought of promoting regional rugby is tempting for some it will take far too long to get established and generate the genuine rivalries that play such a large role.

We don't have that many big clubs in Wales but it is essential that the top eight are encouraged to return to their old strengths. Otherwise, we are in big trouble. There is much to be done in 1998 but at least it should be obvious where we should start.