Ruck and Maul: Christmas message is to give rugby fans more one-off games

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The Independent Online

What, we wonder, is the real message of Christmas? By which we mean the gobsmacking 70,000-plus spectators due at Twickenham today for Harlequins v Wasps in the Premiership, which will help beat the attendance record in a single round of matches, currently 108,467 from this season's opening weekend. Is it the cheaper tickets, the lure of a national stadium or – just a theory – that rugby fans instinctively appreciate the one-off showpiece? Maybe it's time to cut back on league games, to protect players' bodies and to concentrate on what the masses appear to want. Internationals, cup finals, touring teams (e.g. Saracens v South Africa and Barbarians v All Blacks) and even the arcane fixtures like the Varsity and Army v Navy matches, watched by crowds of 30,000 and 50,000 respectively this year.

The pain of pinch points

The open era has claimed many casualties, with clubs large and small either defunct or plummeting through the Leagues when cash ran out. The Championship in England did not cause these problems but it sums them up, with a messy League table showing a quarter of clubs hit by penalties for going into administration (Coventry, Birmingham- Solihull on minus 15 points, and London Welsh on minus five). And a convoluted format under which the top eight of 12 clubs go into a new round of fixtures in the second half of the season before a two-legged final decides on promotion to the Premiership has drawn a sniffy judgement from Premier Rugby. "Our clubs and players opposed the promotion arrangement for the Championship and we're calling for a review at the end of the season," said Mark McCafferty, PRL chief executive. "Supporters are asking why do you have 22 games [just] to get into the top eight. The Premiership has three 'pinch points' – relegation, Heineken Cup qualification and play-offs, and that works well." Some might say it is ludicrous to have every Premiership club qualifying for Europe and the chance of losing the title in a play-off match after nine months' slog. But that's the pain of pinch points.

A toast... even for Deano

Let's drink a cup of kindness to absent friends. Suspended director of rugby Dean Richards attended a recent reunion lunch for England's 1991 and 1992 Grand Slam teams, alongside Jason Leonard, Dewi Morris and Mike Teague. They raised money for the MS-afflicted former England full-back Alastair Hignell. Sadly, Will Carling, the captain, was helping TV presenter Tim Lovejoy make a programme about a football man giving rugby a try. Among those who left Bath under a cloud, Alex Crockett will resume playing with Bristol in March, Andy Higgins has been in Paris pursuing a business venture, Michael Lipman is keeping fit in Australia, hoping for a comeback, and Justin Harrison has hooked up with the Brumbies to appear in the Super 14 when his ban is up next month.

Save the North Wales

A toast too to Clive Griffiths, coach of the new Gogledd Cymru (North Wales) team which, for reasons we do not have room to go into, will include 10 Canadians. The first fixture in this too-long untapped part of the rugby world is against a Leicester Development XV at Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay on 15 January.

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