Battling elite on brink of burn-out

Extreme demands of a three-tournament fixture list are distorting blue riband Premiership race
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When Garry Pagel, the Northampton prop, runs - or, more likely, stumbles - out of the Madejski Stadium tunnel for the Heineken Cup semi-final with Llanelli a fortnight tomorrow, he will be participating in his 33rd game of the longest club campaign in English rugby history. Under the exhausting circumstances, the heavy-duty South African scrummager from King William's Town will probably fail to recognise the perfect symmetry of the occasion: a match for every year of his life. To put it bluntly, he will be too cream-crackered to recognise his own family.

Pagel's personal contribution to Northampton's various pot-hunting pursuits has been astonishing: as a specialist loose-head he plays in the single most demanding position on the field, yet he has participated in 30 of the Midlanders' 31 games to date. He has made 28 starts - as any cauliflower-faced front-rower will testify, the first quarter of a match has a physical intensity all of its own - and he has lasted the full 80 minutes on no fewer than 22 occasions. The one match he missed altogether was a fourth-round Tetley's Bitter Cup tie back in January, when the Saints took on the full might of Nuneaton (and won by a clear 115 points). The next time Clive Woodward or Fran Cotton accuses the Premiership's overseas contingent of using England for a nice little pension and a quiet life, Pagel might reasonably pin them against the nearest wall.

How about another Northampton forward, Budge Pountney? The form open-side flanker in Britain has played rather less club rugby than Pagel - 16 games, to be precise - but he appeared in four of Scotland's five World Cup matches last autumn and was among the first names on Ian McGeechan's team sheet throughout the Six Nations' Championship. It is perfectly possible that he will have played more than 30 matches by the end of May, after which he can look forward to a month or so on the wrong end of a few All Black boots in New Zealand. Pountney is one of contemporary union's great enthusiasts - "I can't even begin to think of a better way of earning a living," he said recently - but enthusiasm does not keep an ailing body in one piece. The man needs rest, and he isn't getting any.

It is a commonplace that club professionals, especially those with international commitments, are playing too much rugby, but it is now becoming clear that the extreme demands of a three-tournament fixture list are distorting England's blue riband competition, the Allied Dunbar Premiership. Northampton's defeat at Harlequins on Wednesday night - a wholly predictable reverse, in the opinion of the Bristol coach, Bob Dwyer - leaves Leicester, their great East Midlands rivals, in the box seat, with Bath hovering with intent like some huge West Country vulture.

Neither challenger can fairly be described as an outstanding side. Leicester have strung some results together of late, but they are heavily dependent on Tim Stimpson's boot and are disappointingly one-dimensional in comparison to last season's title-winning vintage. Bath, meanwhile, are as shambolic in the wet as they are exhilarating in the dry and, therefore, remain an incomplete outfit. By any intelligent calculation, Northampton are the best side in the country; their performances at Wasps in December, Saracens in the Cup in January and Gloucester last month - matches played in contrasting conditions - were quite magnificent. Yet there is a very real possibility that they will finish the season with Sweet Felicity Arkwright.

"They're being penalised for the quality of their rugby," said a sympathetic Dwyer this week, "and it shouldn't be like that. I had the same thing at Leicester when we were going for the three big trophies in 1997. Rugby being the game it is, there is a limit to how much a player's body can take; it may be heresy to say so, but the earlier you get knocked out of the cup competitions, the better your Premiership chances will be, simply because you're putting your main men on the field once a week, rather than twice.

"In my opinion, the only solution to the problem is to play fewer games, making sure they're of higher quality. But getting to that point is a big political question that the sport finds impossible to answer. I can't say I was surprised by Northampton's defeat at Quins; when they left four or five leading players out of their line-up, they were vulnerable. You can't play Premiership rugby on that basis and hope to survive."

John Steele, the director of rugby at Franklin's Gardens, hardly needs Dwyer to advise him of the risks of fielding under-strength sides as the Premiership run-in gathers pace, but he may well opt to repeat his Harlequins experiment at least once over the remaining four weeks of the campaign. If, for example, Bath win at Northampton this afternoon - and the visitors start as marginal favourites, having skilfully manipulated the fixture list in order to rest up for a week in preparation - Steele may decide to abandon the Premiership as a bad job and concentrate instead on the two cup competitions. That would have obvious knock-on effects for clubs chasing places in next season's élite Heineken Cup competition.

The most likely date for the Northampton-Wasps league match originally scheduled for the first weekend in May, when the Saints meet Llanelli in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup, is now 10 May, three days before the Tetley's Bitter Cup final. And who are the finalists? Why, Northampton and Wasps. An already ridiculous situation will be made all the more laughable if both clubs devalue the Premiership encounter by sending shadow XVs to do battle on the Franklin's Gardens paddock.

Yet in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are bleeding the players white, not to mention the spectators who pay anything up to £25 a head at the turnstile and still get soaked by the rain, rugby's discredited politicians are intent on expanding the competitive season. Under Rob Andrew's blueprint, recently adopted as policy by the Rugby Football Union, next season will stretch from 19 August to 19 May, complete with Premiership play-offs and a new midweek British Cup competition, plus a Lions tour on top for those left standing.

Meanwhile, the Gloucester owner, Tom Walkinshaw, is still banging on about a 30-match "super league" programme involving English, Welsh and Scottish sides, plus a full hand of Heineken and Tetley's Bitter Cup games.

Walkinshaw likes to describe his plan as a "virtuous circle" but, from the point of view of the poor bloody infantry, it is more like one of Dante's circles of hell. Paying top dollar to watch 43 matches a season - Walkinshaw's own figure - is very nearly as grisly a prospect as playing in them.

Either way, there will not be much left in the bank by the end.