Rugby Union: Title goes to bold money

Jonathan Davies suggests that a brave investment is about to pay off handsomely
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The Independent Online
HARLEQUINS don't strike me as a team who can pinch a result against the odds so we should get ready to applaud Newcastle home as the champions of the Allied Dunbar Premiership today. To take the title in their first year in the top grade would be a magnificent achievement and proof that success in rugby can be bought.

By that I mean professional rugby. We already knew that success in amateur rugby could be bought, if not by ready cash then other inducements. What John Hall did at Newcastle was to show that no matter how unfashionable a team or an area, if you buy top-quality players, you have a good chance in any company.

Coaches are important for man-management, but talent in your squad is always the most important ingredient. And their best buy was their first - Rob Andrew was transferred from Wasps for a reported pounds 150,000- a-year. It was a brave step for both club and player and was also a controversial move that didn't meet with everyone's approval. But the result has been a triumph for both.

Rob and I were rivals in our early days when he was outside-half for England and I wore the No 10 for Wales. But our images suddenly became different when I moved from Llanelli into rugby league with Widnes. My name was mud while he went on to become one of the favourite sons of the amateur establishment.

Fair enough, he did a great job for England with the climax coming in the World Cup in South Africa three years ago when he put the English into the semi-finals with a soaring drop goal from 40 yards. It is one of the most famous drop goals in rugby history, yet within three months he was out on his ear.

When Newcastle swooped to make him director of rugby, they gave him a bagful of money to spend and he devoted some to signing up a few of his colleagues at Wasps. The club were so angry they refused to select him even though he was still technically their player for another six months. Without first-team rugby he had no option but to retire from the England team.

At almost exactly the same time, my life was also changing. I was transferred from Warrington to Cardiff - the first of the black sheep to return. It was Rob's turn to take the stick. Although he stayed in the same code, he had a taste of what it's like to be criticised for daring to make a living out of rugby.

We did meet once again on the international field; it was the emotional final Five Nations game between Wales and England at the Arms Park last year. For Will Carling and me it was a farewell to playing rugby at that level but Rob went on and now is ready to complete the great honour of leading his team on a record climb to the title.

Will he retire now? I'm sure he could carry on but I suspect it all depends on how ready Jonny Wilkinson is to take over from him. If Rob considers that England's new young hope at outside-half is ready for the big-time, he will step aside and concentrate on his administrative duties. On the other hand, he may stick around to let Wilkinson settle in slowly.

What particularly impresses me about Newcastle is how relaxed is their approach to rugby. I've talked to a number of their players recently and I'm sure that their enthusiasm for playing is so high because they don't get over-trained. They train hard but they keep plenty back for those vital 80 minutes, and it shows. It is also an attitude that would allow a player like Andrew to keep going.

Most players these days seem to be forced into retirement by the thought of the murderous training regimes that clubs impose. I'm not hinting that this is why Michael Lynagh and Philippe Sella have made their farewells.

They've managed to squeeze in two successful and lucrative seasons at the end of their playing careers while working on the business careers they are now going to take up. Saracens are the other fine example of a team buying their way to the top and these two were super signings. They've been great for Saracens and Saracens have been great for them - that's what you call real professionalism.

I've been a great admirer of both for a long time. There is no doubt that from every angle Sella is the best I've played against in rugby union. I'll always remember Lynagh not only for his prolific scoring but for his organisational powers.

He was once inside centre to Mark Ella before he moved to outside-half. He developed from being an excellent support player to one of the best controllers of a game that rugby has seen. They'll be greatly missed.