RUGBY UNION: Sevens timing leaves England lacking the numbers

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JUST WHEN you thought the international rugby community had learned to love England again - well, suffer them at least - the interminable political wrangle over who should play where and be contracted to whom is about to return to the boardroom agenda. England have pulled out of the two opening tournaments on the new world-wide sevens circuit and are most unlikely to appear in the other eight, thanks to the difficulty in raising a representative squad in the middle of an already congested domestic campaign. The International Rugby Board has not fined Twickenham yet, but give them time.

Terry Burwell, the Rugby Football Union's operations director, confirmed last night that no red rose players would be in Dubai in a little over a fortnight's time, nor in Stellenbosch in South Africa on 10-11 December. The RFU has not yet turned its backs on the entire shooting match, but the chances even of an uncompetitive England side pitching up in South America in January must be more remote than the planet Pluto. The tournaments in Punta del Este, near Montevideo, and Mar del Plata, south-east of Buenos Aires, clash with Heineken Cup and European Shield programmes.

There are similar problems later in the sevens cycle: the Hong Kong tournament, the outstanding short-game competition of the season, will begin on 24 March and last for three days. On 25 March, Bath are scheduled to play Bristol in the Premiership; you can just see Andy Robinson and Bob Dwyer releasing their best players into the charge of the RFU sevens management at that particular juncture.

In emphasising that the RFU was attempting to find a way of participating, Burwell said that the possibility of a home-based tournament in May was still being discussed. England had initially envisaged a three-day competition beginning on 27 May, but were beaten to the punch by the French. If another date could be agreed, the RFU might still commit to tournaments that coincide with Six Nations weekends, when player commitments are minimised. That would mean sending squads to New Zealand and Fiji in February, plus a trip to Tokyo in April.

The likelihood, though, is that the only white shirts seen on this season's circuit will be those filled by Fijians. "Why is it that most of these global competitions interfere with the northern hemisphere season rather than the southern hemisphere one?" said one Premiership insider yesterday. "It's the same with the World Cup. Is that held in the middle of the Tri- Nations? No. It's held in the northern autumn, so that our competitions are the ones affected. Before participation in this sevens series is agreed, we need to hammer out a proper policy for selection and player support. We also need to convince ourselves that the thing is financially viable. There are serious doubts about the commercial aspect at the moment."

Complete withdrawal would be an embarrassment for the RFU: when the idea was first mooted earlier this year, the England hierarchy greeted it with unbridled enthusiasm and set up a management structure designed to maximise the red rose return at international sevens meetings. It now remains to be seen whether Clive Woodward, the national coach and a big supporter of sevens as a means of developing young talent, can persuade the leading Premiership clubs to allow players to be contracted as 12-month sevens specialists for the 2000-2001 circuit.

Meanwhile, the Scots have included several Heineken Cup personnel in a 12-man party for the opening tournament in Dubai. Derrick Lee, Conan Sharman, Chris Paterson and Cameron Mather all played for Edinburgh Reivers against Grenoble last Friday night, while Martin Waite appeared for Glasgow Caledonians against Stade Francais.