Rugby Union: The giants must now buy and gel

Jonathan Davies says the transfer market will lead to a division of the good players
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The Independent Online
IN THE short span of its life, the rugby union transfer market has had a wild look about it caused partly by panic as too many clubs dived in to buy players they didn't really want with money they didn't really have.

Now, we are coming to a far more interesting time - the selective shopping stage which is going to add to the fascination of the summer. The pressure is already on for clubs to spice up their squads in readiness for next season and none more so than the gilt-edged clubs who once ruled our domestic rugby.

It was almost a tradition that clubs such as Harlequins, Bath and Leicester would be in the frame at the end of the season. In an amazingly short time that status quo has been destroyed. The established clubs did join in the buying when the barriers were torn down, but not to the same extent or the same success as Newcastle and Saracens.

To be fair, the top clubs could be forgiven for thinking that they already possessed strong squads that needed only the odd new addition. They seemed to concentrate more on getting new coaches. But, as I have said before, good coaches are important but quality players are even more vital.

Lowlier clubs with plenty of money behind them created nearly new squads packed with good recruits who have been more effective. It is now time for the establishment to strike back. They have had long enough to recover from the pain of being upstaged by the upstarts.

Not that all the old guard suffered. Although Newcastle's feat in winning the Premiership at the first attempt has been rightly hailed as a tremendous achievement, the highlight of the season was surely Bath's victory over Brive to win the European Cup.

The fact that Bath ended the season way behind the top two in the league and not in contention in the cup final made it look as if they'd peaked in the middle of the season and then blew it. But the damage to their domestic season was done early on when they had to begin with their back division weakened by the absence of Jeremy Guscott, Ieuan Evans and Adedayo Adebayo.

Bath's big following demand that they are concerned in the season's climaxes and I am not surprised that they are embarking on a pounds 1m spending spree to bolster their squad. The same ambition should be shown by Leicester and Harlequins, whose coach, Zinzan Brooke, arrived in the middle of the season and didn't get much of a chance to put his stamp on things.

Leicester have already signed the full-back Tim Stimpson from Newcastle. Stimpson will bring extra strength where it is needed and is typical of the subtle change in the targeting of suitable players. At first, clubs rushed to buy the best players simply because they were the best. This scatter-gun approach is very expensive and can be wasteful because it tends to pack your replacements' bench with costly bums.

Clubs are now far more aware of precisely the players they need to complete the squad blend and will be more specific in their requirements. So the transfer targets won't always be the most obvious.

When Saracens knew that outside-half Michael Lynagh was retiring at the end of the season they made a quick swoop for Alain Penaud of Brive which was hardly a surprising choice. But Brive's sudden lunge to sign North- ampton's Gregor Townsend last week was more of a shock because Gregor hasn't been playing outside-half for his club. But it is less of a shock when you consider how versatile he is because the essence of the Brive backs is that they are almost all interchangeable. So Gregor fits their team pattern exactly.

Finding the players to fit the jigsaw puzzle will open up opportunities for players who may not have the highest public profile. And those, like Stimpson, who often get stuck on the bench, will find it easier to get a chance at a new club. Clubs are becoming less able to afford to pay players for sitting down and will have to let them go.

This is one of the advantages of professional rugby - players will spread out among more clubs and get a better chance to show their worth.