Rugby Union: Time to rumble after the grumbles

The new season: After a summer of discontent, a new unity of purpose is needed if the professional era is to succeed
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The Independent Online
SO FINALLY the talking has to stop, albeit temporarily, to make way for the rude interruption of action on the field. The summer of discontent may be grumbling and rumbling its way into autumn, but the season that really matters begins officially today - well, for almost everyone.

There is an enlarged Allied Dunbar Premiership, the preliminary round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup involving 64 hopefuls and a couple of Anglo- Welsh matches, which have not actually been officially sanctioned but are going ahead anyway, to launch what threatens to be a stormy and crammed season, but one with a great deal of potential for stirring exploits.

And while the arguments about control of the game, its players and its lucrative deals may be the same, thankfully there are some changes of personnel and scene around the clubs. Alain Penaud and Jeremy Thomson have popped up at Saracens, ostensibly to step into the shoes of two legends, Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella, no doubt they will cut their own swathes through the English club game.

Harlequins will finally have the awesome Zinzan Brooke in one of their famous shirts. He has a threefold challenge as player, captain and coach. David Dantiacq has joined Northampton from Pau, while the Saints also made potentially the best signing of the summer when they bought Pat Lam from the champions, Newcastle. The Australian Pat Howard has entered the Tigers' den at Leicester along with the speedy Canadian wing, Dave Lougheed.

As for the venues, Newcastle, who have themselves switched their big games from Kingston Park to the Gateshead Stadium, begin their defence at Richmond's new base. Richmond are still in the Thames catchment area, just some 35 miles upstream from the inadequate Athletic Ground, where they are sharing the purpose built, impressive Madejski Stadium with Reading Football Club.

London Scottish begin their return to the top flight on new turf as well. Having shared the Athletic Ground with the aforementioned Richmond for a long time they have moved down the A316 to Harlequins' Stoop Memorial Ground in Twickenham and open proceedings against re-named Manchester Sale.

West Hartlepool, who take part in one of the controversial Anglo-Welsh clashes this weekend when they travel to Swansea, must wait until next week before trying out Victoria Park, the home of the town's football club United. It is an odd coincidence that two of the Allied Dunbar Premiership One's new boys should be engaged in activities which, while not completely illegal, certainly do not have the approval of the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union or the International Board. Perhaps the senior members of the top division knew something.

Whatever, Bedford must run the gauntlet of being the first English side to entertain one of the two disaffected Welsh clubs when Cardiff turn up at Goldington Road. Neither of these cross-border matches has Union approved match officials, although presumably the referees who do take charge will not be referred to as scab labour. These outlawed fixtures will take place every weekend that there is a scheduled Premiership programme, reducing the number of official fixtures by one.

The England coach, Clive Woodward, is going to be a busy man as he enters the final stages of preparations for next year's World Cup. The first thing he has to do is to ensure that those unfortunates who went on the tour to hell when England lost all four Tests in the southern hemisphere in the summer have not been scarred for life. He also has to make sure that the crocks who missed the tortuous trip because of their chronic injuries and ailments have all recovered. Then he has to prepare everyone for a gruelling schedule beginning with two World Cup qualification match es against the Netherlands and Italy in November, followed by one-off Tests against Australia and South Africa before Christmas.

It is no less strenuous for the other home countries. Altogether there are 12 Tests involving Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England before the festive season. Wales then start the year with a match against the fierce Western Samoans - and that is followed by the Five Nations.

The mass withdrawal of labour from the European Cup by the English clubs is possibly a blessing in disguise for the often over-worked players. At least they will not be under quite such severe pressure to perform at the the very top level week-in, week-out.

Everyone seems to be pulling in different directions, though. Something has been missing in the disreputable scrabble that has accompanied professionalism. Something fundamental to the game. A unity of purpose.

No single component of the global network is greater than its whole. No individual, however justified their arguments, can be bigger than the collective. Oh for the days when all players had to worry about was burn- out. Right now there are fires burning within the game that are threatening more than scorched earth. It is time to put the union back in rugby.