Rugby Union: Time for Celts to play their own game

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The Independent Online
WRITTEN OFF three months ago as junk which wouldn't find space in Steptoe's yard, Celtic rugby is now a highly marketable commodity. It is a quality brand associated with skill, entertainment and, above all, success. What the Celts must do now, and quickly, is to exploit their new- found status, and foremost among their priorities is the need to address the chaotic state of their internal affairs.

In Scotland and Wales the domestic game is in ruins, riven by discord and discontent. The Irish are in much better shape, and their policy of enticing their exiled mercenaries back to the homeland has been conspicuously successful. Nevertheless, rugby in Ireland, north and south, is much too incestuous, lacking the free- flowing exchange of ideas and methods which comes from regular exposure to other playing cultures. Long-term this is potentially damaging to the Irish game and, as heroic as Ulster's European Cup victory was, it did not translate on to the international arena with the result that, of the three Celtic nations, Ireland appear to have made least progress.

The British League was held as being the answer and so, on the surface, it was. A competitive tournament involving the country's top sides and offering quality rugby to the Welsh clubs, Cardiff and Swansea in particular, and to the two Scottish Super Districts, all dressed up but nowhere to go. It would be sure to attract sponsors, television and spectators. But it was a mirage and like all mirages, the closer you got up to it the faster its charms faded.

Quite apart from the question of who controlled the competition which, with England's Premier clubs involved, would have been an exercise as protracted as it was painful, the fundamental flaw in such a concept was that it addressed the problems from the wrong end. Instead of strengthening and broadening the base of the pyramid, the British League concentrated exclusively on the sharp end. As any builder will tell you, nothing of permanence or stability can be constructed from the top down. The consequence would have been an ever-decreasing, self-perpetuating elite, almost certainly English, owner- run and over-manned by players ineligible to play for England.

The Rugby Football Union have yet to feel the effects of their disastrous concessions to their leading clubs, but that is only a matter of time. The total dependence of the game in this country on international rugby has once again been highlighted during the last three months. Record crowds and receipts, upon which the game at large will have to draw heavily, have proved, if proof were still needed, the pre-eminence of the international game and the overriding need to channel every effort into maintaining its primacy, both at the top level and at all stages leading to it.

This is clearly not happening in England. Given their enviable resources, the performances of the various English development sides this season have hardly offered encouragement for the future, and now we learn that the clubs have refused to release their players for the Under-21 tournament in Argentina this summer. This is a tournament which was instituted at England's insistence and to which France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia send their strongest sides.

The same cannot be allowed to happen in the smaller rugby playing communities of Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The time has come for the Celts to unite. Talks are taking place between the three countries concerning the formation of a Celtic league starting in the 2000-2001 season and involving four Welsh super clubs, the two Super Districts from Scotland and two or three Irish provinces. The imminent return of Cardiff and Swansea to the fold will clearly be an issue, but it has been recognised for some time in Wales that the quality of their club rugby has been diluted by the fact that there are too many mediocre sides playing in the top leagues. It is the same in Scotland, where the SRU have been savaged for their determination to persist with the Super Districts. Yet there is no viable alternative. The Scottish clubs could not live with the likes of Leicester and Brive.

Expertly and creatively promoted and marketed, a Celtic league would surely attract both sponsors and television coverage. Moreover, it would be under the control of the unions, providing a playing structure which could be moulded to the requirements of the international schedule and therefore free from the restrictive practices which are blighting the game in England.

The vast majority of players in the Celtic league would, unlike their counterparts in England, be qualified to play for their countries. The teams in the Celtic league would also play in the European Cup, and another layer could perhaps be added with the introduction of either play- offs between the top Celtic teams and clubs from the Allied Dunbar Premiership or the establishment of a British cup competition.

A Celtic league would provide opportunities for a joint-resources operation covering a range of activities from schools to sevens. There could also, in time, be the opportunity to expand into two leagues, embracing the top amateur players and providing the kind of competitive infrastructure so vital to the game's development. But the first task is to get the competition up and running and to ensure that the joyride of this season's Five Nations' Championship is much more than a three-month wonder.