Clubs and country benefit from new start

Compensation for those who lose players to England duty as season provides fresh impetus
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The Independent Online

On the back of the Zurich Premiership, which is laying claim to be the most competitive league on planet rugby, England already have one eye on the next World Cup. Sir Clive Woodward and his Premiership counterparts have agreed on a programme which is designed to show the Red Rose in the best possible light.

The 60 members of the Elite Player Squad will have an individual playing, training and rest schedule, with a maximum of 32 matches for club and country in any one year. Last season Woodward complained that he didn't have enough access to his world champions before they embarked on an anti-climactic campaign in the RBS Six Nations. Under the new agreement, which will run to the 2007 World Cup, the élite will have 16 training days each season in addition to the normal release weeks before a Test. Woodward will also have access to the players throughout the summer of 2007.

A compensation fund of £2m has been established for the clubs, who will receive £30,000 for each player they provide to the élite squad and £10,000 for a representative in the national academy. "The programme is intended to lay the foundation for a successful defence of the World Cup,'' said Chris Spice, the performance director of the RFU. The money will soften the blow for clubs who provide a lion's share to the national cause, although it will be scant consolation if a side effect is failure in the Premiership and Europe.

Last season Leicester, after winning seven trophies in four years, lost seven of their first 13 Premiership matches, made a tame exit from the Heineken Cup and by February the unthinkable had happened. No matter that the Tigers had supplied eight forwards to England's World Cup campaign, Dean Rich-ards's 23-year association with the club came to an end. If Deano could be shown the door, nobody was safe.

With Martin Johnson and Neil Back, both of whom retired from international rugby, providing backroom support for the new coach, John Wells, Leicester turned their season around to such a degree that they claimed England's final spot in the Heineken Cup.

Normal service should be resumed this season, particularly as the Australian Pat Howard, who had a brilliant spell at the club as a centre, has rejoined as a coach. Although the South African stand-off Jaco van der Westhuyzen will be lost to Japan for at least a season, Howard has new talent to work with in the Fijian centre Seru Rabeni, the New Zealand full-back David Thorne and the Samoan backs Roger Warren and Alex and Andy Tuilagi. Leicester have cornered the market in Tuilagis; Andy is the fourth member of the family to play at Welford Road.

Jason Robinson will have some idea of what he has let himself in for when Sale play Leicester at Edgeley Park next Sunday. The most dangerous runner in the game also has to carry the captaincy, a responsibility he has not handled since leading Hunslet Boys' Club Under-11 rugby league team 20 years ago.

Jim Mallinder and Alex Sanderson are among those who have left, and Philippe Saint-André asked Robinson to take over the captaincy. "It was not something I was looking for and I hadn't given it any thought,'' Robinson said. "Phil-ippe has a lot of new ideas. He knows what he wants and how to get it. We have to move on. Last season was very disappointing. There was no consistency, and we can't afford to perform only once in a while. For the first time we've got strength in depth, and the team spirit is great.''

When England conceded 50 points to Australia at the end of their hapless summer tour, Robinson was watching on TV in his hotel room in Sardinia, where he was holidaying with his family. "It was funny not to be involved,'' he said. "Part of me wanted to be out there.'' And a sensible part of him did not. "At the end of the season I was mentally and physically drained. Now I'm ready to regroup.''

A modern trend is for players to compete sporting a Desperate Dan stubble, if not an embryo beard. This will not go down well with a major new sponsor. Gillette have become the "official grooming partner'' of England and Premier Rugby and have signed Robinson as the man to help "change the face of rugby''.

There were other candidates, including the England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, and the World Cup hero, Jonny Wilkinson. However, when the former was involved in an infamous tabloid sting, the hacks who tricked him with the promise of a lucrative sponsorship contract said they were from Gillette. And the latter clearly can't cut it because of his surname.

Gillette, who were associated with cricket 40 years ago and more recently with David Beckham, are introducing giant screens to Premiership grounds to show action replays and the decisions made by television match officials.

Premier Rugby say that all 12 clubs are recording an increase in season-ticket sales - Harlequins and Gloucester have enlarged their grounds - and next Saturday a crowd of up to 50,000 is expected at Twickenham for the opening capital double-header: London Irish v Harlequins, the Parker Pen Challenge champions, and Saracens against Wasps, the Premiership champions and Heineken Cup holders.

The same day Northampton, who are speaking with a South African accent following the appointment of Alan Solomons as head coach, are at home to Bath. Matt Dawson, who hardly played for the Saints last season, is expected to feature for Wasps, which means that, with Dallaglio, they will have two high-profile spokesmen on the park.

On Friday night, Wasps eased past the Celtic League champions, Llanelli, 20-17 in the inaugural Zurich Anglo-Celtic Challenge at Stradey Park.

Once again Saracens have been particularly energetic in the transfer market, prompting speculation among other clubs along the lines of: how on earth have they kept within the salary cap? The limit rises three per cent a year, taking a club's wage bill on players to just under £2m this season. The salary cap is a bit like the 70mph speed limit - everybody breaks it. The difference in rugby is that nobody gets caught.