League rugby was a contentious enough issue before it finally arrived but in the seven years since it did it has become as integral, and important, a piece of English rugby's furniture as Twickenham itself. But until now, until the World Cup forced a belated examination of what is best for international players, there has never been a time when the championship has been the source of such aggravation.
The Rugby Football Union quite properly proclaims its responsibility for the 2,000 and more clubs who have no direct interest in the England team. But it also knows all too well - not least because of its own World Cup in 1991 - how critical the shop-window is in the promotion of the game down there among the 2,000.
As Bath begin the defence of their title against Bristol, the priority the RFU will accord its international players in the season's unavoidable club-v-country clash has still not been determined, leaving players and clubs to work it out for themselves - a totally invidious position for people who are not the game's policy-makers. The only thing that has happened is that relegation from the First Division has been reduced to one club.
How puzzling that as long ago as 8 July, at the union's annual meeting, the outgoing president, Ian Beer, told delegates: 'I am glad to report that an understanding is being reached with the senior clubs to ensure our top players have the pressure taken off them in the run-up to the World Cup.' Well, it ain't happened; indeed it is only a week or so ago that Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, circulated a discussion paper on this very subject.
In fact, its tone is more telling than asking, and by now it is well known that if Jack Rowell, the England manager, does not receive the co-operation he wants the chances for his team in South Africa will have suffered a mortal blow. If the England squad participate in a full Courage league campaign without periodic rest and recuperation they will, by next May, be burnt-out cases. Rowell already has the recent tour to South Africa as evidence.
Rutherford states that the England team who play Romania on 12 November will not be available for the league programme a week earlier. The 21 for the Canada match on 10 December will not be available for the Divisional Championship on the preceding three Saturdays. England players will be excused the league on 14 January, 11 February and 11 March, a week before the Ireland, Wales and Scotland matches but will be permitted to figure in the Pilkington Cup round of 28 January, one week before France play at Twickenham. After 25 March, England's World Cup 26 will, according to the Rutherford letter, be eligible for a maximum of two of the remaining club fixtures.
There is also a complex series of April alternatives for clubs who have a significant number of World Cup representatives, and then Rutherford invites comments. It is extraordinarily late in the day, two months later than Beer's agm pronouncement. 'We've had four years to sort this out and we must never get ourselves in this situation again,' Barrie Corless, Gloucester's director of rugby, said. Elsewhere, the likely level of England involvement is a cause for trepidation rather than pride.
'We will give total support to England to ensure they do the best they can in the World Cup,' Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, said. 'But the whole thing has been mishandled by the RFU. What they've done is not think about it until it's too late and then stick their head in the sand by not changing the structured season.'
This, Russ says, would not have been impossible if one-off solutions had been applied with the World Cup specifically in mind. In response to a direct request at the Courage launch 11 days ago by Will Carling, the England captain, for an England elite dedicated to the World Cup in preference to the domestic league and cup, no answer came the stern RFU reply.
Russ, for one, begs to differ. 'The structure of the season could have been altered: we could have brought the Courage programme forward by playing league matches instead of the divisionals. Or we could have reduced the First Division to eight teams for one season. Or we could have had one fixture against each opponent instead of home and away.'
As a paid servant of his club, Russ owes his first loyalty to Leicester (not least because his job depends on it). But he has the good sense to recognise that he also owes it to English rugby, as well as his own aspiring players, to set his club commitment in the wider context. 'It's a managerial problem, trying to manage two objectives, but it's been made impossible,' he said.
'The clubs are stuffed. In the end, if Jack Rowell says to a player 'you're not playing next Saturday or else you won't play for England', end of story. I'm totally sympathetic to Jack and his requirements, but he's been put in a terrible position. It's going to put a dreadful strain on the players, who have dual loyalties and aren't the people who should be making the decisions.'
Russ is in an especially invidious position because of the number of Tigers likely to feature in England's plans. But Bath, too, will have the guts of their team ripped out by representative demands and, to a greater or lesser extent, Bristol, Harlequins, Northampton, Orrell and Wasps will all be affected as well. 'England have to state their requirements and the clubs have to comply,' Russ said. 'I want to be told what England want, and then we'll do it. But I need to know now.'
It is a doleful way to herald a superb competition which has done wonders for English rugby in general and England in particular. But how times change: here we are with the Courage Championship about to begin and suddenly, far from being a help, it has become a hindrance.
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