Rugby Union's Kick-off: Exchange controls curb poachers: At the start of a new Courage league season, the RFU is getting tough on inducements to players. Steve Bale reports

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FOR evidence of the ever-heightening profile of English rugby union, we need look no further than Bath. No, not the Recreation Ground but the Theatre Royal and its Christmas programme. Courtesy of England's champion club, Gareth Chilcott will appear as a dodgy character called the Broker's Man in Cinderella with Rolf Harris as Buttons.

This is all very well for an Ian Botham or a Frank Bruno but a rugby man packing them in at the panto is about as unlikely as you could get, even if the player is a one-off such as Chilcott. He would have made a great Dame. The barrel-chested anti-hero will be in his more familiar role, propping the Bath scrum, when the Courage Clubs' Championship begins its 12-match progress this afternoon.

And that, unlike Cinders, is serious business. One of rugby's successes - though some would see it rather as a failure - is that it has made Chilcott and others public property and the league, still only five years old, has played a significant part in this development. You have only to look at Chilcott, slimmed down and fitter than he ever was when he was in the England team, to see how the game has changed; winning rather than taking part is now the imperative.

There are costs to this success, as the Rugby Football Union has been ceaselessly pointing out in the past few weeks. The need for promotion, or failing that the avoidance of relegation, is a greater incentive than anything clubs had in the pre-meritocratic days when every fixture was a friendly. The scramble for the best players has become ever more unsavoury as recruiting sergeants do their work.

This problem is not unique to England, as some of the stories of Welsh internationals hawking themselves around clubs show. What is different about England is that Danie Serfontein, the RFU president, has been so bold as to come out with figures - up to pounds 5,000 - for the illicit inducements on offer and warn that the transfer regulations will continue to be tightened as long as suspicion is not accompanied by evidence.

Here we have the RFU's determined response to allegations it knows are true but which it can never prove because of the de facto conspiracy of silence that exists between those who offer the inducements. Henceforth, though, things will be harder: a 120-day qualifying period, which will be increased to a year if it does not have the required effect. These are draconian measures for a sport in which amateurs used to be free to come and go as they pleased.

(The union, in its benevolence, will allow players to play on for their old club while they are qualifying but the idea that, say, Bath would carry on selecting someone who had told them he was off to Bristol is surely a nonsense.)

So will it work? When the league begins its mid-season break in December we may have a better idea of whether further stringency is necessary. For players who transfer then, the hardship will be reduced, because the Divisional Championship and the Five Nations' Championship together mean they would miss only a couple of league games while qualifying.

As for next season, for transferred players to begin at the beginning they will in effect have to make their arrangements in February. It is becoming so prohibitive that surely the scramble will cease. Indeed the bigger scramble this season will not be for players but against the mass relegation that is being caused by the senior clubs' desire that the league be played on a full home-and-away basis. This will be more equitable but also more profitable; too bad about the extra demands it will place on the poor old players.

To reduce divisions of 13 clubs playing each other once to divisions of 10 playing each other twice while at the same time maintaining even minimal promotion means four down from League One, seven from League Two and eight from League Three (which would have been nine if Headingley and Roundhay had not combined as Leeds): 19 instead of six disappointed, and possibly regretful, clubs.

Still, it was the clubs themselves who decided they wanted promotion - one each from Two, Three, Four North and South - and they will have to pay a higher price than they may have imagined. As John Jeavons-Fellows, the RFU's competitions chairman, put it in his sardonic way: 'Clubs are quite keen on promotion, less so on relegation.'

For the record, Jeavons-Fellows thought the obvious way to proceed was simply to draw a line under the first 10 clubs at the end of the season, another under the next 10 and so on. Come the end of the season, some of them might wish they had paid him more heed.

As for the actual rugby - yes, amid the politicking there is a game out there waiting to be played - the exigencies of the new laws demand that English players break the habit of a lifetime by keeping their feet when the ball is on the ground.

This will give a particular fascination to this afternoon's opener at the Rec, where the Broker's Man will pack down for the champions. If Bath and Harlequins cannot adapt, then it is reasonable to assume none of their peers can, because in their contrasting ways these two clubs are English rugby's standard-setters and therefore standard-bearers.

Quins certainly have the ability to catch Bath but they have never yet developed the unsatisfiable hunger for week-by-week success that makes a champion as opposed to a cup winner. Northampton, who open against Bristol at Franklin's Gardens, are more in the Bath mould in that respect and, once the new year comes, may have greater staying power.

Whether Courage, the sponsor, also does is another imponderable of the new league season. This is the last year of the brewer's three-year deal worth pounds 2.1m and if you listen to Mike Reynolds, the company's public-affairs director, the economic climate is such that this may be where Courage reaches its sticking point.

Whitbread's pounds 2.1m backing for the Heineken Welsh League with an additional pounds 1m promotional support has jacked up the price, bearing in mind that the Heineken has 48 clubs compared with its English equivalent's 1,190. On the other hand it is a useful marketing tool to be associated with success and, double Grand Slams apart, there has probably never been anything in English rugby that has succeeded like the Courage Clubs' Championship.


From next season each division will have 10 teams, playing home and away

Courage League One: (currently 13 teams) Four relegated

Courage League Two: (13) Champions promoted, seven relegated

Courage League Three (12) Champions promoted, eight relegated

Courage League Four (13) Champions of Four (North) and Four (South) go into new National Four

(Photograph omitted)