Ruck and Maul: Italians devoured as English stars clean up in the kitchen

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The Independent Online

By and large, the credit crunch does not seem to have tightened the belt of professional rugby. It was released a few notches last week when Investec, the sponsors of the autumn internationals, held a cooking competition at Venturi's Table – "bringing people together through food" – in Wandsworth. Guests of honour were the Leicester (and England?) half-backs Harry Ellis and Toby Flood, and flanker James Haskell.

As competitive in the kitchen as on the playing field, they covered themselves with glory, not to mention the contents of pasta fatta in casa, mazzetti di fagiolini and crema pasticcera. If you detect a flavour of Italian secrets then you're not wrong, for the exercise was billed as Teambuilding Italian Style. Can't imagine the Azzurri having Teambuilding English Style. Spotted dick anyone?

Baron skips dinner

The belt was further relaxed the following evening when Martin Johnson, the England manager, hosted his first media dinner at Twickenham. The World Cup-winning captain revealed that had he not been offered the post by the RFU he might have got involved with a National League One team. Ruck and Maul spotted Francis Baron's racing-green Bentley in the car park, complete with personalised number plate, but the chief executive of the RFU was not at Johnson's soirée. No sir, Baron was attending a meeting of the ace consultants Ashridge. He was brushing up on his leadership skills.

Squad mess leaves Johnson in a pickle

FB may need them as Johnson begins to flex his Popeye-like muscles (no spinach needed). There are already signs that what Johnson wants – he is a very different animal from his predecessor, Brian Ashton – Johnson gets. Under the RFU's new eight-year agreement with the clubs, England, for reasons best known to themselves, felt obliged to name their 32-man elite squad at the start of July. It was originally thought nobody could be replaced, irrespective of form, unless they were injured or ill.

Johnson, who defended the arrangement despite its ludicrous restraints, found himself in a bit of a Branston's last week as he called in the Wasps stand-off Danny Cipriani (registered at No 10 and 15) and the Bath flanker Michael Lipman.

So far so good, for they are replacements for the injured Jonny Wilkinson and Lewis Moody. It was the promotion of Nick Abendanon, Bath's full-back, that attracted a magnifying glass to the small print.

Back in the summer, Josh Lewsey and Mathew Tait had been identified as the elite full-backs, but for a variety of reasons, not least that they are not often seen in the No 15 jersey, that hasn't panned out. Although it's supposed to be like for like, Abendanon (below) has been drafted in for Tom Varndell, the Leicester wing who has gone from leading try-scorer at Welford Road to outcast.

Varndell is not injured, but then we discover that if an elite player is not playing in his nominated position for his club, or not playing at all because he is no longer flavour of the month, he can be replaced. "We believe that in this case it is not appropriate to over-interpret the agreement," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby. "If a player is not being selected by his club it is not sensible to force the issue. The deal is a complex one."

Indeed it is. It runs to 140 pages. On some issues, Premier Rugby is coy. For example, how many times can somebody play out of position for his club before being replaced in the elite squad? "Can't tell you."

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