Clubs show unity over shortened Six Nations

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Musketeerish principle of "all for one and one for all" has never been especially evident at the élite end of European rugby: if a century of international rugby has taught us anything, it is that the French are deeply suspicious of the Celts, and that no one likes the English. Viewed in that context, yesterday's events in Lyon not only signalled a major breakthrough in cross-border relations, but a potential shift in the balance of oval-ball power north of the equator.

The Musketeerish principle of "all for one and one for all" has never been especially evident at the élite end of European rugby: if a century of international rugby has taught us anything, it is that the French are deeply suspicious of the Celts, and that no one likes the English. Viewed in that context, yesterday's events in Lyon not only signalled a major breakthrough in cross-border relations, but a potential shift in the balance of oval-ball power north of the equator.

Dozens of delegates from England, France, Italy, Scotland and Wales, some of them exceptionally high-powered, sanctioned the creation of the European Clubs' Association, and by so doing, they guaranteed themselves a deafeningly loud voice in all future discussions on the structure of the northern hemisphere season. "We want to make proposals to the national unions and federations, not present opposition," said Serge Blanco, the darling of Tricolore rugby during his playing days and now the leading figure in the French club movement. "But we want to demonstrate that there is a unity of purpose among the European clubs, and to make sure that our point of view is clearly understood."

Almost immediately, the newly-established body voiced its concern over the proliferation of international matches, which recently forced leading English teams to play Premiership games without their Test personnel and caused a break of almost two months in the French championship programme.

The ECA is recommending a standard 41-week season that would remove the need for competitive rugby in August and minimise the threat of player burn-out by introducing a sensible break of more than two months between the end of summer tours and the beginning of new domestic campaigns.

Blanco, in particular, wants to see the Six Nations' championship condensed into a single six-week span, presumably with a pause for breath after the first three rounds. At the moment, the international showpiece of the European campaign is a more expansive affair: this season's bun-fight begins on 3 February and ends on 8 April. Most national coaches would welcome a shortening of the tournament, because it would allow them to keep their squads together for the duration. However, there are strong commercial arguments against any such move, and the ECA is unlikely to make early progress on the issue.

While the English, French and Welsh were the driving forces behind the initiative, the presence of the Scottish contingent was a clear bonus for the organisers. Glasgow Caledonians, one of the country's two Heineken Cup outfits, were represented, as were Melrose, the traditional standard-bearers of borders rugby before they found the rug pulled from under them by the architects of the Scottish super-club system. The Irish did not attend, however. "We didn't expect to see them: they've gone down the provincial road, and there is no realistic chance of them turning back," said one delegate.

Ian McGeechan, the Scottish coach, has named the Edinburgh Reivers centre Kevin Utterson and the Glasgow Caledonians utility back Barry Irving in a 32-man Six Nations training squad scheduled to meet at Murrayfield on Monday to begin preparations for the tournament. Both men are uncapped. Irving, born in England, has represented Scotland at under-18 and under-21 level, while Utterson was a try-scoring contributor to the second-string A team last season.

Three capped No 8s - Gordon Simpson, Martin Leslie and Simon Taylor - are missing from the party through injury, and Glenn Metcalfe, one of the most gifted broken-field runners in the British game, is also hors de combat.

However, Andy Nicol, last season's captain, has been named among the scrum-halves, despite suffering a facial injury during Glasgow's Welsh-Scottish League victory over Cross Keys last weekend.

Comments