David Flatman: Simple solution to club v country row
From the Front Row: Six Nations over five weeks and salary cap increase so clubs can handle three-game weeks – this will end player-release anger
Sunday 06 March 2011
I wonder if English rugby will ever quite manage to get the relationship right between its clubs and its national team. It's a funny old relationship and one, I suspect, that wouldn't score too highly if referred to a counsellor. I'm not sure who exactly would share the leather chaise longue, but I am pretty confident that the expert would press home the power of compromise.
Of course, there is the débâcle surrounding the biannual selection of an England squad and the loopholes that have to be negotiated in order to get an unselected but in-form player on to the field, but we know all about this already. Fabio Capello does not have this problem; he just picks the players he wants every time. You might argue that it hasn't done him much good, but we can't blame the system.
One symptom of this supposedly amiable accord that does always seem rather counter-productive is England players missing club matches. England are happy with this arrangement as they get their men, the players are happy as they get to play for their country. But the clubs go intobig matches without, in theory,their best players. This is odd, don't you think?
Two weeks ago, we played against a Northampton team shorn of Dylan Hartley, Chris Ashton, Tom Wood and Ben Foden. Courtney Lawes was injured but, had he been fit, would also have been busy wearing white. We were without England centre Shontayne Hape. Despite this, the fans paid full price and the same number of points were at stake. The pounds and points aren't really the issue, but they form important parts of the bigger picture.
Then, last week, we took on an Exeter team missing, well, no internationals. We again were without Hape, but this time Matt Banahan was busy, too. Fortunately we managed to win but one couldn't help smiling while reading the Exeter teamsheet which, bar the odd injury and form-related selection, was no different to the one printed out all season.
So how does this make the players feel? Well, in truth, once you get out there it isn't something you think about. Usually the bloke stood six inches away trying to take your head off serves as sufficient distraction. Admittedly, we have a good squad at Bath and enough depth to cope so you might say we have it easy.
Jim Mallinder and Dorian West might feel differently, however. We all know that Northampton have a fantastic squad of players as well but surely no team could lose two of the best back-three players in the world without anyone noticing. So, due to their excellent form in recent seasons, their squad is temporarily weakened.
This raises a crazy question: is it worth signing current internationals? Well, yes it is. Naturally, the likes of Lewis Moody just won't be available for as many games as other players at the club but he is an England international for a reason. Evidently when he plays, his drive and commitment are unrivalled, whatever the opposition, and the same goes in training. But this isn't the only benefit.
He, along with the other internationals, add to the mix a heightened level of experience and composure; they infuse those around them with a feeling of security and a sense that, whatever situation we might be in, they've been there and handled it before. And this – in a game where it's not only the measurables that count (see the NFL) – is priceless.
So, were I a director of rugby, I would still recruit England players. I would concede that, as is right and proper, national selection takes precedence at all times and I wouldn't complain. I might, however, push for a few tweaks to the system. The notion of the Aviva Premiership halting completely while the Six Nations takes place seems reasonable enough at first glance, but do you think Exeter's representative would be keen? I doubt it. This "blocking out" would also mean a longer season as all league matches were pushed back and, well, the players would surely revolt at this.
My solution would be simple; play your Six Nations in five weeks, give us club players a nice little break and increase the salary cap to allow squads to cope with the demands of the resulting handful of three-game weeks. See, easy. Now all I have to do is get someone from the RFU to agree to meet my therapist. Look into my eyes...
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