Rugby Union: Wanted: Volunteers for a vital sacrifice

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TROUBLES AMONG rugby's top clubs have overshadowed even the sterling stuff produced by Wales in Paris last weekend. With Richmond laying off players in the latest sign of rugby recession, the game is in urgent need of a ruthless revaluation. But are the unions prepared to be realistic? Not if the Welsh Rugby Union's continual dithering over Cardiff and Swansea is anything to go by.

Our game desperately needs clubs of the calibre and potential of the two Welsh rebels and, across the board, only the biggest and the best are going to be good enough to help us develop to world standard. The time has come to weed out those who are impeding this progress by not being up to scratch - and I mean players as well as clubs.

The harsh truth is that too many inadequate players are stealing a living as professional rugby players because there are too many teams trying to exist at the top level. They get contracts because there are not enough of the better players to go around and, even with the big invasion of foreign players, the talent is spread too thinly. A lot of them are there to make the numbers up and as a result the quality of most club games is much lower than it should be.

It is much the same story in rugby league. The standard of both codes of rugby in Britain would benefit tremendously if we had the courage to reduce the numbers of clubs at the top so that the cream of our playing resources could be concentrated among fewer teams. We'd see a big rise in the quality of our week-to-week rugby and our players would be better prepared to meet the challenge of international rugby.

It wouldn't prevent the presence of foreign players and the welcome influence they have on the game but we wouldn't need as many which, in turn, would enhance the development of our own players. It is not just the lack of talent that makes so many players ill-equipped for life at the top, it is their attitude. Despite it being obvious that only the peak of physical condition is good enough, they don't put enough genuine effort into training or into their mental approach.

I was chatting about this subject with a well-known international player in Dublin last weekend and he was saying that even after an exhausting Five Nations weekend he would be back at his club on Monday putting more determination into training than many of his colleagues who'd had the weekend off. The real meaning of professionalism hasn't dawned on some players and probably never will.

But, as we've seen from the botched-up attempts to form a British League, any attempt to create a leaner and more competitive domestic scene meets with fierce opposition from clubs who fear being left out. Everybody agrees that sacrifices have to be made but no one wants to make the sacrifice.

Perhaps the problems that the wealthy backers of Newcastle, Bedford and Richmond have been facing, plus the dodgy situation at a few other premier outfits, will force the clubs to become realistic. The brutal fact is that our game can't sustain more than a certain number of elite clubs. What that number should be is the difficult question. I will take a stab at suggesting that three from Wales and two each from Scotland and Ireland plus eight from England would give us a high-quality fixture list capable of producing a standard to benefit all four home countries and leave room for a European competition.

To achieve that, however, would mean a lot of famous and long- established clubs facing a secondary existence that would probably require them to turn semi- professional. This would bring more sense to the finances of the second- rung clubs who would still have the opportunity to grow and join the elite but it wouldn't bankrupt them in the process. They would be the clubs to foster the young talent.

There is plenty of evidence in both union and league that the slogan "the more the merrier" is a big drawback. Rugby league in Australia attempted to spread the game far and wide a few years ago but although new clubs popped up all over the place the interest soon faded because it was impossible to maintain a high standard. They've now gone back to a smaller league, fewer games and guaranteed high-calibre action that is proving a success.

I can appreciate our codes wanting to spread the word but the only word that works is quality and we are already seeing the danger of one-sided, sub-standard matches. This is what happens if you have too many clubs with not enough good players to go around. It is no good having 14 clubs in your top league if you only possess enough good players to furnish eight or ten. The surgery would be painful but it is the only cure.