Pluck of the Irish can survive group of death

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The Independent Online

It might appear Toby Booth is living a completely different life as the director of rugby at London Irish compared to his former job as an electrician, when he rose at the crack of dawn to work on new-builds and blocks of flats. But it was in the last recession before this, when money was tight and every penny spent on manpower was under scrutiny. So, just the same, really. "What you could never legislate for in building," Booth said, "was a house going up on a cracked line in the foundations, and you'd have to go back and do your work again and get paid a second time. That's what's called needing a contingency budget."

The contingency in rugby applies when, as now, Irish have a glut of injuries in one area: the back row. Unless any of those injuries endure beyond 12 weeks, the club is not permitted to spend on replacements under the Premiership salary cap of £4.2 million. Booth is master of works in a London Irish squad currently top of the Premiership and ready to kick off the Heineken Cup against Munster in Reading next Saturday, alongside Toulon and Ospreys in a classic "group of death". Only injuries, in Booth's opinion, will undermine the chances of any of the competing English clubs being able to win both titles.

This is bold talk considering English clubs managed only one quarter-final place last season. Booth said that should be seen as a blip unless it is repeated for another two years. But what about the salary cap and the often-expressed gripe in England that the likes of Toulon – who are reckoned to be spending £7.1 million on the playing squad out of annual income of around £17m – have an unfair advantage? England's biggest club, Leicester, have an £18.5m turnover; London Irish's is £6.98m. To Booth, in these circumstances, the cap fits. "I support the salary cap 100 per cent," he said. "It keeps the business sustainable, and it keeps the competition's integrity as long as it's enforced (Premiership Rugby have just appointeda salary and regulations manager, Andrew Rogers). We have 33 senior players and 10 youngsters. Would I like a few more? Yes. I think the right senior squad size is 35. What you don't want is the salary cap to increase and you pay 33 players and 10 youngsters, everyone 10 grand extra. I don't know too many millionaire coaches in France, though there are a few millionaire owners.

"It does become distorted when you go outside your fishpond into the Heineken Cup or even the LV Cup. In Ireland with central contracts Munster can have their players ready to play in the Heineken Cup. The French clubs can afford more players. In England the squad sizes are coming down, yet you have enforced rest periods, injuries, international windows – and the game is not getting any easier. Every Englishsquad has got enough quality, it's just whether all that quality is available at the same time. Coaches deal in the availability of players; that's their currency."

Irish under Booth's predecessor, Brian Smith, modelled their squad on Toulouse – the greatest possible quality where the salary cap allowed, and a high percentage of home-grown players. Wouldn't the one-time East End sparkie Booth fancy being a Toulon or a Racing-Métro, buying almost a complete XV every year or two? "My philosophy is that if you get too many numbers, you can't manage these people," said Booth. "You can't be honest, you can't look them in the eye and tell them what's important, about how they're getting on at home or what's making them a better player. And you play this game to play. We have picked up players from bigger squads who haven't had the opportunity to play." A greater capacity to spend would not have kept Shane Geraghty (now at Northampton) at Irish, Booth said.

The other obvious challenge in Europe is refereeing. Saracens' Brendan Venter last week suggested French referees were handling the supposedly common directives issued by the International Rugby Board differently to their English counterparts. Booth preferred to keep mum about the Munster match being refereed by Christophe Berdos, probably because London Irish have a troubled historywith Gallic whistlers. In 2006, Smith said Romain Poite's handling of Irish's defeat by Scarlets in their Heineken Cup opener "left a lot to be desired" – ironically, Smith was unhappy the moresenior Berdos had been switched to Leinster's tie. Berdos refereed Irish's 48-8 win over Newcastle in January 2009, after which Booth complained: "Certain things happened [in the scrum] you don't normally get away with in the Premiership", while conceding his men were "slightly naive". Then there was a 35-19 defeat at Leicester last March, when Irish seethed at marching Tigers 10 yards forward at the scrum only to be penalised by Berdos for changing their binding. "When push comes to shove, it's about trust," Booth said – but he was still talking about his players.