Bristol and Saracens may be eyeballing each other over next season's Heineken Cup qualification, but they have far more in common than their mutual interest in a top-five Premiership finish. Both are at the cutting edge of professional union, both are owned by millionaire mavericks and both are utterly obsessed with big names: from Bob Dwyer to Francois Pienaar, from Henry Honiball to Kyran Bracken. It seems neither will be satisfied until Bill Clinton moves to the Memorial Ground as club president and Madonna joins the phsyio contingent at Vicarage Road.
The headline-chasing rivals yesterday completed their latest high-profile signings. Saracens finally lured Thomas CastaignÃ¿de, the 25-year-old French jacques-of-all-trades, across the Channel after two long years of negotiation, while Bristol persuaded Ellery Hanley, the one undisputed British great of the modern rugby league era, to switch codes and join a coaching team headed up by Dwyer and Dean Ryan and soon to include Joel Stransky, the former Springbok outside-half.
CastaignÃ¿de is a very decent capture, but Hanley's signature counts for rather more while costing a whole lot less - more than 60 per cent less than the Frenchman's reported £200,000 a year, according to the best Memorial Ground estimates. While CastaignÃ¿de's imminent arrival threatens one or more of Saracens' exciting young home-grown talents - Rob Thirlby, Ben Johnston and Matthew Leek all play in positions in which Le Petit Prince has Test experience - Hanley's input may well help the sleeping giant of the English club scene back on to its feet.
"One of the huge spin-offs of Ellery's presence at Bristol will be a strengthening of the culture of professionalism amongst the players," said Dwyer. "When it was first suggested that I might talk to Ellery, I went to my rugby league contacts back home in Australia and learned for sure what I had already suspected: that his fantastic dedication and attention to detail would be a very serious asset indeed. When the Wallabies won the World Cup last year, they conceded one try in the tournament. There are too many variables to make 'zero tolerance' realistic over the course of a long Premiership campaign, but if Ellery can reduce our try deficit by one a game, we'll be a top two club."
Hanley won 36 Great Britain caps in four positions during his rugby league career - "The Australians rated him, and I can tell you they don't rate too many from this part of the world," remarked Dwyer - and, at his first attempt, coached St Helens to a Grand Final triumph last October. But he left the 13-man club scene under a cloud after making repeated public criticisms of St Helens' apparent lack of ambition on the recruitment front.
His new employers are anything but unambitious, as their pursuit of Jonah Lomu demonstrated last year, but Hanley can be a prickly sort if he detects any slippage in standards. Connoisseurs of verbal boxing would buy tickets to witness his first falling-out with Dwyer.
"You cannot win any code of football without secure defence, a defence of steel," said Hanley yesterday after finalising a deal that takes him through to the end of next season. "All players must understand that as soon as they cross the whitewash, the shirt they are wearing is their badge of honour. I'm not at Bristol to fool around, but to take the players to another level."
Although Hanley's contract stipulates two days of coaching a week plus a watching brief on match days, Dwyer anticipates a much fuller commitment from his illustrious new colleague. "Judging by the conversations I've had with him, Ellery will put in five days a week if he feels it necessary," said the Australian. "He's looking for accommodation in the Bristol area, so that tells us something. His role will evolve and develop naturally, and I'm hopeful that he'll stay with Bristol in the longer term if things work out."
Meanwhile, Sale are celebrating a financial takeover that may, at long last, establish them as the undisputed powerhouse of the professional game in the North-west. Brian Kennedy, a multi-millionaire businessman who already has strong links with Scottish rugby, formally took control of the under-performing Sharks yesterday.
"We've been working for a long time on a business plan to take the club forward," he said, "and unless people are fully committed to the venture, they have no future at Heywood Road." Few have shown more commitment than Adrian Hadley, the long-suffering director of rugby, and the former Wales Test wing was immediately appointed to the new board.
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