Rugby Union: Season of all seasons

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The Independent Online
Britain's Eurosceptics may not like the idea, but the movers and shakers of the four home rugby unions have strengthened links with their continental partners by agreeing a common fixture list for next season. The bad news for players is that the 1997-98 campaign may feel as if it lasts for ever.

The big kick-off in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy is on 16 August and, by the time the big sign-off is completed on 23 May, the players will have negotiated 40 weeks of rugby, the most drawn-out season in rugby history.

All six countries have settled on dates for international matches, Heineken Cup and European Conference ties and domestic league and cup games. The Heineken tournament, the success story of this season, will feature 20 teams in five pools, with quarter-finals in November, semi-finals the week before Christmas and the final on 31 January. The second-tier Conference competition, will be expanded to include 28 clubs - a move that should ensure European action for all 12 English First Division sides.

A rugby tour of South Africa is not an ideal form of recuperation from injury but, when the Lions selectors announce their 35-strong party for this summer's set-to with the Springboks on Wednesday, Neil Jenkins seems certain to move from the casualty list to the team list without passing a fitness test.

The Pontypridd captain broke his left arm during the Wales-England game under a fortnight ago and the damage was sufficiently severe to raise doubts over his participation in the forthcoming Test series. His absence would have been a blow to the Lions, who have long regarded him as their most dependable source of points.

Yesterday's prognosis was unexpectedly positive, however. Eddie Jones, the Pontypridd manager, reported that the post-operation stitches had been removed from Jenkins' arm and predicted that his versatile goalkicker would be fully fit by the beginning of May."

England, expected to provide up to 50 per cent of the Lions party, are still wondering which players will be available to tour Argentina in May. One name has been inked in, though, is that of Jack Rowell, the coach, whose willingness to travel was confirmed by the Rugby Football Union yesterday despite his long-term future in the national set-up remaining uncertain.

Rowell, whose contract runs out in August, will also take England to Australia in July, by which time he should have decided whether to continue on a full-time, rather than part-time, basis next term. Les Cusworth and Mike Slemen, his sidekicks, stay in position for the summer activities and the Argentinian leg will be managed by Peter Trunkfield.