Alan Watkins: Money-grubbing contests devalue game on two fronts

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The Independent Online

Contrary to appearances, this column has never maintained that things were better in the old days. What is true is that, in rugby, we are now spoiled for choice. Another way to put it is to say that the romance has gone out of the game. And for this development there are several reasons.

Contrary to appearances, this column has never maintained that things were better in the old days. What is true is that, in rugby, we are now spoiled for choice. Another way to put it is to say that the romance has gone out of the game. And for this development there are several reasons.

One of them is television. Undoubtedly, its adds greatly to our knowledge of what is happening on the field. The principal defect of the medium is that, owing to the properties of the lens, it distorts distance: so you do not know whether a kick is good or bad unless you have the pitch's various lines firmly in view. An even greater defect is that it has got above itself: so that Saturday's France v Australia match began at a ridiculously late hour by decree of the television authorities.

But the greatest defect is the obverse of its largest virtue, that of accessibility. Fifty years ago a fan in the Midlands would have seen, say, Bleddyn Williams two or three times in his entire life, at internationals; slightly more often if Williams' club, Cardiff, had happened to be on the fixture list of the local side.

Today, a rugby follower anywhere in these islands can see Williams' nearest equivalent, Brian O'Driscoll, on television virtually every weekend, whether playing for Ireland in an international or for Leinster in the Heineken Cup. Indeed, the native Dublin fan is scarcely better off. O'Driscoll, in common with other Ireland players, seems to turn out infrequently for his club, preferring to restrict his appearances to his province.

Another development has produced the same effect, that is the importation of foreign players into the game in the United Kingdom, more particularly in England. Familiarity has not bred contempt exactly - often it has increased admiration. What it has produced is, well, familiarity.

Percy Montgomery, the South African full-back who has been performing so well this month, could until recently have been seen playing for Newport-Gwent Dragons. Whether he continues to turn out we shall have to wait and see: for countries of the southern hemisphere do not, on the whole, like their players earning their money outside their native land.

This certainly applies to members of their current squad or those in contention for a place in the national side. Those who have retired from international rugby or have, for one reason or another, fallen out with the authorities are treated differently. Thus Christian Cullen, discarded by New Zealand, is perfectly welcome to play full-back for Munster.

Northampton has become a perfect Sunset Home for old lags from South Africa and New Zealand. Saracens used to lead the way as the Eastbourne of the rugby world, but several of the club's expensive pensioners flattered to deceive, as the racing writers used to put it. Still, Michael Lynagh provided good value; while Thomas Castaignède would have done if he had not been injured so early and so often.

However, the biggest reason for our being spoiled - for a certain jaded attitude on our part towards the game - lies in something I have touched on before, in a previous column. It lies in the plethora of meaningless internationals, contrived for reasons of commercial greed.

They are certainly not set up for the benefit of the so-called emergent nations, which have been emerging now for a decade and more. For some years, in fact, they have, through no fault of their own, been retreating rather than emerging. This is certainly so of Romania, as it is of Canada also. I wish the Canadians well - I saw them put up a fine performance in going down 26-13 to England at Wembley in 1992 - but I was surprised that even as many as 42,000 turned out to see them at Twickenham on Saturday.

If we are to have these one-off, money-grubbing contests at all, surely it would be preferable to invite Argentina, Samoa and Fiji to these shores rather than Canada, Romania and Japan? The contests which have recently taken place devalue the game because of their one-sided character. The contests involving South Africa, Australia and New Zealand are entirely different. They devalue it because they have no reason to them and are designed solely to generate cash. Why, for example, should Scotland play Australia at home twice?

This, as I have written before, is not a call for the restoration of the full pre-Christmas tour though I should be sorry to see it disappear completely. It is, rather, a plea for a series of internationals which has some structure involving no more than one, at most, countries from the southern hemisphere, which would play all the countries of the Six Nations Championship.

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