Rugby Union: Scotland 'ban' best players

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RUGBY'S OBSESSION with the politics of the absurd reached a high point in Scotland yesterday when a group of committee types effectively decreed that if the players, coaches and clubs were all in favour of something, it must be wrong. Scottish Premier Rugby, the body charged with administering the domestic leagues north of the border, refused to allow contracted professionals from the Glasgow Caledonians and Edinburgh Reivers to play in the Tennants Championship, thereby condemning some of the country's brightest talent to long periods of inactivity.

The decision provoked an outpouring of frustration from the highlands to the border country. "I'm speechless," said Ian Rankin, the Reivers coach. "We all thought it was signed, sealed and delivered, that common sense would prevail. Some of the players not getting first-team rugby with the Reivers or the Caledonians have a hell of a lot to offer but instead of creating a mutually beneficial situation, we're left with no option but to pay them to sit in a stand."

Both super-district teams, launched earlier this year to give the best Scottish players top-class action at European and cross-border level, have around 30 full-time professionals. Thanks to yesterday's edict from SPR, those "fringe" players outside the first-team squad can now expect little or no meaningful rugby until next season.

"Like any club side, we need cover for all positions," Rankin said. "But inevitably, the rigorous demands of European Cup competition means that coaches are picking their best sides week in, week out. It seemed sensible to allow those not being selected to go back to their clubs and play championship rugby, on the basis that it would be good for everyone concerned. Sadly, that's not going to happen. The players themselves are pretty upset and I don't blame them."

One of the leading players affected by the disqualification is Scott Hastings, twice a Lion and the most capped international in Scottish history. Hastings played for Watsonians' second-string last weekend - a meaningless cakewalk for a centre of his calibre and experience - and may well have to do so on a regular basis, simply to retain a semblance of match fitness.

Jimmy Caldwell, a member of the SPR executive representing the West of Scotland club, defended the decision yesterday. "We accept that this transitional season is a difficult one, but we agreed the policy at the start of the season and there were no dissenters," he said. "We have total sympathy with the players most affected by this problem but, in addition to the essential principle, the championship is already underway and it would be unfair to change the rules during the course of the competition."

The Rugby Football Union last night removed a threat to the future of Lions tours by insisting that the current four-year cycle remains in place.

There had been suggestions, notably from the former England prop Jeff Probyn, who never played for the Lions, that the tours should take place less frequently, but proposals for a six-year gap were rejected. Brian Baister chaired an RFU management board meeting which stated: "We considered a recommendation from the National Playing Committee to change the cycle of Lions tours from four to six years. The proposal was turned down and the next Lions tour is scheduled for 2001 to New Zealand."

The recent Lions' tourist Will Greenwood has recovered from injury and will turn out for Leicester in tonight's rebel friendly with Cardiff at Welford Road.

But injury and illness has ruled out Austin Healey, Graham Rowntree, Richard Cockerill, Darren Garforth, Neil Back and the Wallaby newcomer Pat Howard - and there are doubts over Martin Johnson and Joel Stransky. "We do not intend to take chances with any player," said Dean Richards, the Leicester manager.