Rugby Union: Woodward embroiled in club v country spat rears its face again

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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD has already established himself as a bold and adventurous selector in capping seven new players in the space of six England international matches. You ain't seen nothing yet, though. Thanks to the latest political spat between club and country - a deadly serious confrontation that has all the makings of a fight to the finish - the coach may have to send an entire team of anonymous journeymen and pre-pubescent unknowns into the firing line against Australia in Brisbane this summer.

Two of England's top five Premiership outfits, Northampton and Saracens, mounted their high horses yesterday and politely informed Woodward, Fran Cotton and the rest of the Rugby Football Union top brass that they considered the forthcoming tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to be a trip too far for their knackered players and, therefore, would not be releasing them.

Actually, they were not even polite. "The guy who pays the piper calls the tune," snapped Keith Barwell, the Northampton owner. "We owners put pounds 35m into the game last season and while Fran thinks he can tell us what to do, he'll shortly find out that he can't. The public are sick and tired of all this niggle behind the scenes. Like in any game of rugby, we need a bloody good punch-up to sort it out."

Barwell's stance attracted unconditional support from the Saracens owner, Nigel Wray, and their words were all the more resonant for the fact that both men had long been considered "doves" in the prolonged argy-bargy between the clubs and the RFU.

Woodward tried his level best to retain his cool - indeed, he dummied and sidestepped his way across the diplomatic quicksand in the finest traditions of a Lions centre - but he was clearly flabbergasted by the Barwell initiative. "England are definitely travelling south this summer and 36 players will be going," he reiterated. "I'm just glad the clubs didn't make these comments last year because if they had, there wouldn't have been a Lions tour.

"We have to sit down and talk this through, obviously, but every time someone voices an opinion, all hell breaks loose. I believe in dialogue, but the last time I aired my views about the future of the game in public, I found a solicitor's letter on my doormat. By the same yardstick, Fran invited all 24 Premiership clubs to come to Twickenham a week or so ago and discuss his ideas on the future, but they declined. What's happening here?"

Both Northampton and Saracens claim to have signed their players on contracts containing an international release clause and that those contracts have primacy over any deal struck between the Test contingent and the RFU. According to Mike Smith, the Saracens chief executive, the RFU contracts are legally unsound anyway. "The players were forced to sign them because they received a letter telling them that if they didn't put pen to paper, they wouldn't be chosen for England," he alleged.

If the two Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-finalists stick to their guns, Woodward will cross the equator without the likes of Rodber, Dawson, Grayson, Grewcock, Hill, Diprose and Bracken. Given that other key England personnel are feeling the effects of almost two years of constant top-level rugby - Martin Johnson, the Leicester lock, and Jason Leonard, the Harlequins prop, are prime examples - more clubs could follow suit, provided they are as contractually watertight as the two instigators.

However, the Premiership clan is in serious danger of causing a damaging split in its own ranks. Despite protestations to the contrary, not all clubs supported the tactically naive decision to boycott next season's Heineken Cup. Similarly, there is no across-the-board consensus on this second, even more inflammatory declaration of non-co-operation. At least one elite club, Wasps, indicated yesterday that they would not dream of preventing their personnel playing international rugby.

That position was reinforced by Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps and England captain. Dallaglio would probably appreciate a rest this summer - indeed, the last thing he needs with a World Cup on the horizon is to be kicked around New Zealand - but he said yesterday: "It's for the player himself to decide whether or not he plays for his country if invited to do so. Certainly, I don't want anyone making that decision on my behalf, because it's a fantastic honour achieved through an individual's own endeavour and hard work.

"Like the other members of the squad, I entered into an agreement with the RFU on the understanding that the clubs were happy with it and that agreement says in black and white that we're available to tour. Therefore, I'm contractually bound to do so. If Clive thinks England would be better served by my staying at home this summer, it's something for us to discuss. But it would be pretty sad for any player to be told he couldn't fulfil his ambitions."

Intriguingly, Dallaglio's views were mirrored by Tim Rodber, the Northampton captain. "I'm not sure if Keith has said these things as a means of forcing the issue, but I must say that I would like to go on tour this summer if selected," he admitted.

Oh, by the way. Northampton and Saracens will face each other in the first of this season's -Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-finals on 28 March, with Wasps taking on Sale in the second tie later that same afternoon. Just thought you'd like to know.

ENGLAND SQUAD (for training session at Bisham Abbey on Wednesday 4 March): Backs: M Perry (Bath), I Balshaw (Bath), M Catt (Bath), D Rees (Sale), A Healey (Leicester), W Greenwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), P de Glanville (Bath), P Grayson (Northampton), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens), M Dawson (Northampton), S Benton (Gloucester). Forwards: J Leonard (Harlequins), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Worsley (Bristol), D Barnes (Newcastle), G Rowntree (Leicester), R Cockerill (Leicester), D West (Leicester), A Long (Bath), G Chuter (Saracens), G Archer (Newcastle), M Johnson (Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), T Rodber (Northampton), A Diprose (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester).