Rugby Union: Time for clubs to put country first

Chris Rea says England's players are hampered by the system producing them
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The Independent Online
Had England been appearing on the West End stage last weekend, and not at Twickenham, it is very doubtful if their run would have been extended until the end of the month let alone to 6 December, the date of their final performance of this Herculean four-match series. The reviews were less than enthusiastic, the audience was manifestly unimpressed and if the artists were not exactly pantomime acts they were hardly in the Shakespearean class.

So whose fault is that? Clive Woodward has, with Blairite contrition, admitted to getting his front row badly wrong against the Wallabies. He will also have asked searching questions of himself regarding England's game plan which, after a controlled 10 minutes at the start of the match, began to disintegrate at an alarming pace. In this England were further hampered by Alex King's injury problems which forced Woodward to move Mike Catt to fly-half. How anyone can claim that the jury is still out on Catt as a fly-half I do not know. Catt is a naturally gifted and instinctive player whose abilities at international level are suited only to the centre.

It matters not that he can perform brilliantly in the pivotal role week after week for Bath. No matter what fate befalls England in the next fortnight it is blindingly obvious that the club system in England is not producing players who are fully equipped to play at the highest level against the best in the world. There was a terrifyingly honest admission from Woodward last week when, following the destruction of his Emerging England XV (a misnomer if ever there was one), he lamented the fact that John Hart, his opposite number in New Zealand, had 150 contracted players to choose from against the 70 competing in England's Premiership. "And of those," said Woodward, "you can discount 20 to 30 who are not good enough." So there you have it. A country 10 times the size of New Zealand has a quarter of the playing talent.

In a national Sunday newspaper last week there appeared what might have been a fascinating dialogue had more space been given to it, between two of the world's top coaches Bob Dwyer, who had steered the Australians to World Cup victory in 1991 and who is now with Leicester, and John Hart who is at present in charge of the side being hailed as the finest rugby machine of this or any other age. Their dissection of the English game was most illuminating. Dwyer was hugely critical of player development in this country. "There is total neglect of the player as an individual," he said. Reading this just a few hours after Matt Perry had made his debut and had, by and large and in contrast to most of his England colleagues, escaped the critics' venom, confirmed so much of what we had witnessed the previous afternoon. Perry, for all his natural talent and exuberance, couldn't have kicked his way out of a paper bag. He had missed touch and had, on occasions, almost missed the ball altogether. Some of it could no doubt be explained by the conditions and by first-day nerves. But I have also spent some time at pre-match warm-ups at the Recreation Ground this season watching Perry's passing technique which, like his kicking, is seriously flawed. Here is a young man richly blessed with natural ability, considered good enough to play for his country, but whose basic skills are far below the levels required.

It was when the conversation turned to the domestic game, however, that things really warmed up. "If I had a concern for England," said Hart, "it would be that the power seems to be with the clubs rather than the national union. There's a big difference with New Zealand - they control the process of fixtures and everything else which enhances the All Blacks." "Well," replied the crafty cobber, "that's not happening here." Too right it's not, matey. Yet the same barbed Dwyer has, along with many of the other premier clubs, been screaming blue murder about the structure of the English season and has been demanding more power for the clubs. On top of that he has been adding substantially to the flood of overseas players in the English game. Good on yer, Bob, it's your job and your loyalty to your club does you credit. But be honest - you wouldn't tolerate such a situation in Australia any more than Hart would in New Zealand.

Mind you, it doesn't always pay to take too much heed of our Antipodean cousins. One firm of bookmakers, who shall remain nameless for the simple reason that they have very probably gone out of business, were so moved by Hart's outraged protests over the selection of the England XV at Huddersfield in midweek and the damage they might inflict on his raw and callow recruits that they installed the All Blacks as second favourites. The unalterable fact, however, is that the English game as it is at present structured cannot provide the fully finished article for the international arena. Woodward's honourable confession is only half the story. The real and unpalatable truth is that he was let down by players who are, in turn, being let down by the system which produces them.