Rugby union: Time for rugby's endurance test

Two years after the advent of professionalism a season begins when the demands of the new age will really hit home; Tim Glover previews a year when more matches will be played than ever before
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The Independent Online
Almost two years ago to the day, one of the defining moments in the game's history occurred in Paris when the International Board decided that Rugby Union should become open. Had they been meeting in, say, Scunthorpe, perhaps the IB, a body noted more for its conservatism than dynamism, might not have been carried away on a current of French revolutionary fervour.

It would have helped club treasurers if the inevitability of professionalism had been preceded by a hint of the timing; but one minute the blazers were sitting comfortably behind the walls of the Bastille, the next the streets were awash with blood.

Twenty-four months on, anybody emerging from hibernation could not begin to comprehend the consequences of the fall-out. For example, when Rip Van Winkle nodded off, Saracens were a homely little club up the North Circular with ambitions no greater than to keep a roof over their heads. When Rip awoke it was to the sound of Francois Pienaar, World Cup in hand, announcing from the terraces of Watford FC, that Sarries wanted to be the Manchester United of rugby. All that remains is for Harlequins, sorry NEC Harlequins, to appoint Lord Lucan as treasurer.

In the interim, the response has largely been one of trial and error and although errors will continue to be made, the trial is almost over, although kit manufacturers ought to consider producing summer and winter wear. The season in Wales kicked off yesterday while England enter a new era of league rugby next weekend with the Allied Dunbar Premiership. With the ethos of the beer match being consigned, along with the half-time Jaffa, to history, it is perhaps appropriate that the Courage Leagues have been replaced by a company that is implementing mandatory disability insurance for players.

The top two divisions have been renamed Allied Dunbar Premiership One and Two; there will be promotion and relegation and play-offs between the third- and fourth-placed clubs in Division Two and ninth and tenth in Division One. A total of 264 matches will be played between August and May.

Allied Dunbar is using the game to promote its successful ad campaign Let's Face The Music and Dance. A spokesman said: "By strengthening the club's financial position, we can help them to provide better facilities and more exciting games."

No amount of money can guarantee excitement on the pitch and, in any case, the clubs should be mindful of another line in the Dunbar campaign: "There may be trouble ahead." One of the reasons the Lions were written off is that they had limited recuperation following a long, hard season before travelling to South Africa. Now they have hardly had time to recharge their bank accounts before their mobiles told them: "Once more into the breach."

One of the reasons the season is beginning before even the Ashes series is complete, is to try and avoid fixture problems. The English Rugby Partnership (a company owned by the RFU and the first and second divisions), says it is determined to prevent a repeat of the club versus country disputes that appeared like a rash last season.

However, the only true solution to fixture congestion is to cut down on the number of fixtures. Because there are more bills to pay, there are more games than ever which in turn leads to more expense for larger squads. On top of the leagues, there is the Heineken Cup, taking in six rounds from Milan to Munster and Bath to Brive, the European Conference and the domestic cup competitions.

As for the international calendar, it is also choc-a-bloc with visits from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada and Italy. There are more quantum leaps to take on board: England versus New Zealand at Old Trafford, or Wales versus New Zealand at Wembley.

Nor is it just the players who are in danger of burnout. The 6,000 spectators who made the journey to South Africa, may be saving up for Christmas rather than a trip to Manchester or a walk down Wembley Way. And we have not yet mentioned the Five Nations' Championship which, in the New Year, will feature matches on a Sunday.

The sin-bin system, tried and abandoned in Wales, will be introduced in England but it's an old law that should concern the unions - that of diminishing returns.

As it is, few teams will be at full strength when the Premiership faces the music next Saturday. John Bentley, one of the Lions' icons, will not be at Bath with Newcastle. He popped a rib cartilege playing for Halifax against the Brisbane Broncos and is not released from his contract with the rugby league club until 1 September. Bath have a number of top-flight wings, most of whom are injured, which explains the signing of Ieuan Evans. The problem is, he, too, is recovering from injury.

Northampton, home to Harlequins, are likely to be without Gregor Townsend and Paul Grayson, both of whom are suffering from leg injuries. Having accused Cardiff of all manner of sins in trying to sign Townsend, the Saints are hell-bent on getting Scott Gibbs from Swansea.

Townsend's decision to stay will not harm the bid for Gibbs. Cardiff were confident of signing Townsend. The Lions stand-off rejected Bath because they could not guarantee him first call in his favoured position. Cardiff could, but Northampton's new contract offers the Scot the fly- half berth ahead of Grayson.

There is also a unique rider: if things do not work out, Townsend will be free to leave after Christmas. It could be described as the Santa clause.

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