Rugby Union: The sad side of the merry-go-round: Leading players hedge their bets on moves to other clubs in rugby union's great annual game. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
PAUL GRAYSON is injured and will not be playing for Waterloo in their Pilkington Cup quarter-final against Harlequins on Saturday - just as well, perhaps, for the Merseyside club to learn to do without him, since they know that next season this is precisely what they will have to do.

Grayson, a 22-year-old stand- off who stands fourth in the England selectors' pecking-order, has already signed up for Northampton, where a job as well as a place in one of the First Division's elite teams beckons. The fact that Waterloo are, as promotion contenders, candidates for a place alongside the Saints is, it seems, immaterial.

The decision has had to be taken now so that Grayson can serve his 120-day qualification period under Rugby Football Union regulations (the summer does not count) to be eligible for the start of next season. On the other hand, if he so chooses he can stay put. No one expects that, even if Waterloo do gain promotion.

If Grayson is playing two sides off against each other, his motives are more obviously justifiable than those of some who have already signed up elsewhere. The England B outside-half Neil Matthews, for instance, has put his name down for Bristol as a hedge against Gloucester being relegated.

There are others out of that B- team stable. Having signed for Harlequins, Damian Hopley will eventually have the luxury of deciding between them and Wasps. Justyn Cassell says representative pressures, exacerbated with Saracens in peril of relegation, prompted his signature for Quins. Simon Hodgkinson, two short years ago an England record- breaker, has signalled the end of his aspirations by stepping down to Macclesfield from Nottingham.

So has there been a February stampede to comply with regulations intended to stop the July / August stampede which, mixed up in endless money talk, had brought the game into annual disrepute? According to the RFU the numbers involved, though uncollated, are down, and the fact that players are having to make up their minds now will have the beneficial effect of giving their present clubs an advance warning.

'At all levels of the game coaches used to be beavering away with what they thought was going to be their squad of players and suddenly, just before the end of August, they would see a bloke's name in another team,' John Jeavons-Fellows, the RFU's competitions chairman, said.

'But now we have flushed it out. We know who they are, who is moving where. If there is any lack of moral fibre in any of the people involved, at least we are bringing it out and can then decide what they are made of. And clubs who are potentially losing players do have a chance of trying to persuade them to stay, or they can shake hands and try to get a replacement.'

One would imagine that a player who had so diluted his loyalty would be more likely to receive a good-riddance than a welcome- back handshake - a point made by Nick Allott, the Waterloo captain. Allott is sensible enough to appreciate Grayson's ambition to further his playing and non-playing careers, but it would be remarkable if the captain's attitude to his player was not affected by his player's altered relationship with Waterloo.

'I'm faced with the dilemma of whether to play Paul or his understudy because I have to ask, where is his loyalty? Our policy will continue to be that we play whoever we think is best for that position, providing guidelines about training with us are fulfilled. On the other hand it has been mentioned he might play a couple of friendlies for Northampton and if that happened it would be goodbye.'

Allott is honest enough to note that Waterloo, having themselves acquired Grayson from Preston Grasshoppers last summer, could be accused of hypocrisy. Even Saracens, who, courtesy of the 120-day rule, know already that they stand to lose an entire back row and more, trawl Hertfordshire and Essex before piecing together the teams who until this season have kept them safe in the First Division.

The fact, however regrettable, is that English rugby is concentrating into half a dozen big clubs and alas Sarries are suffering accordingly - as they have always done. But this has nothing to do with the eligibility regulations. It is just that this season, with four going down from the First Division so that home-and-away fixtures (wished on the RFU by the clubs themselves) can be introduced, is more precarious than ever.

Still, it has seemed unseemly. Waterloo may be losing Grayson but they admit to be looking for good new players as urgently as anyone else. Indeed, one club official, Tony Cove, admitted: 'There are application forms going round like pieces of confetti.'

The only way to stop it, whether in February or August, is to imitate or even exceed the French system of a whole year's qualification. Indeed, this is under RFU consideration, but to follow such a path would be to admit that players could not play for whom they liked and that therefore rugby union was no longer an amateur game. And for the RFU to do that is somehow unthinkable.

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