It should have been a natural climax, perhaps the first of several over the next few weeks, to a club career stretching back well over 100 games. Sadly for Neal Hatley, the 19st cornerstone of a London Irish front row that has been as solid as granite all season, the issue that causes more selectorial injustice than any other has cost him a place in the Exiles' match-day squad for this weekend's Powergen Cup final with Northampton at Twickenham.
The 32-year-old loose-head prop is one of two notable absentees, and he will be feeling a whole lot worse than his fellow non-participant, Paul Gustard, who is cup-tied after his move from Leicester. Hatley is missing for goal-kicking reasons – not because of his own lack of marksmanship of course, for no player of his dimensions ever kicked anything barring the odd opponent, but because of the shortage of back-up to the outstandingly accurate Barry Everitt, who has done more than most to elevate London Irish to their current place in the sun.
"We have used Ed Thrower on the bench a good deal this season, but his injury means we need James Brown's kicking skills – and James is an outside-half pure and simple, rather than a player who can fill a variety of positions," explained Brendan Venter, the former Springbok whose first season as player-coach could hardly have been more successful. "It was a difficult decision, a really hard one to make, because Neal has been wonderful for us all year. I've spoken to him and apologised, but I promised myself years ago that I would never go into an important game with no back-up kicker."
As a matter of policy, London Irish have selected three front-row replacements since the beginning of the campaign – indeed, their habit of replacing the starting unit en bloc shortly after half-time landed them in trouble before Christmas, when a rugby anorak armed with a rulebook spotted the illegality of the practice. However, this game, the Exiles' first cup final for 22 years, is not the kind of fixture any club could contemplate losing for want of someone to kick the ball between the sticks.
Of the current squad, only the international wing Justin Bishop has made more appearances for the club than Hatley, who would probably have started ahead of the younger, lighter Michael Worsley but for recent injury problems and his rival's own excellent form. Worsley is beginning to enter the thoughts of the national hierarchy, and a strong showing against the Midlanders might well earn him a place on England's summer tour of Argentina.
Late in the day as it is – the tour is scheduled to begin in the second week of June – the Rugby Football Union is still awaiting confirmation from the International Rugby Board that the trip can go ahead. This is not surprising, however; at this precise moment, the IRB cannot even decide where to hold the 2003 World Cup. Asked to choose between Australia's financially secure solo bid and New Zealand's rather less cost-effective tender to stage virtually half the 48-match tournament, the delegates have given themselves an extra 24 hours to separate the wheat from the chaff.
An announcement is now due tomorrow, although nobody at IRB headquarters in Dublin has the faintest idea at what time the white smoke may appear. Given the humiliating circumstances surrounding the debate, and the collapse of relations between the Australian and New Zealand unions, the IRB might have been expected to sort this as quickly as possible. There again, words speak louder than actions in rugby committee land.Reuse content