Northern trio may be fighting a losing battle

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Back in the days when men were men and fast bowlers got through 50 overs before lunch and another 50 after tea, Fred Trueman, a professional Yorkshireman of Pythonesque proportions, took great pleasure in greeting incoming batsmen with one or two well-directed shards of northern wit.

Back in the days when men were men and fast bowlers got through 50 overs before lunch and another 50 after tea, Fred Trueman, a professional Yorkshireman of Pythonesque proportions, took great pleasure in greeting incoming batsmen with one or two well-directed shards of northern wit.

"Don't bother shutting the gate, son," he would growl as a new bladesman shuffled tentatively out of the pavilion. "You'll be going back the way you came any minute now."

A ragbag collection of very different professional Yorkshiremen - one or two of them Yorkshiremen by adoption rather than breeding - may well get those sentiments thrown back in their faces over the coming weeks and months of the revamped Zurich Premiership. Rotherham, 24-carat flat cap and whippet apart from the odd Canadian and the occasional Pacific islander, are confidently expected to get the rugby union equivalent of a first-baller; in other words, are regarded as certainties for relegation next May, precisely a year after clawing and clambering their way to élite status by beating their nearest and dearest from Leeds to the Second Division title and then outpointing Bedford in last season's end-of-term play-off eliminator. "Enjoy it while you can, chaps," the likes of Leicester and Saracens are preparing to tell the new boys at every scrum, ruck and maul. "You won't be here long."

And in truth, it is difficult to argue with that comfortless prognosis. In a rugby age of business-suited go-getting, of mass media marketing and sloganeering - "Premier Rugby: Fitter, Faster, Harder" is this season's official catchphrase - Rotherham are not what the Premiership is considered, at least by its movers and shakers, to be about. They have stand accommodation for 250, whereas swanky Saracens have seating for almost 100 times that number; while Rotherham have five full internationals in their squad, Bath will spend much of the season leaving a capped quintet behind in the bar. Talking of which, there is just the one bar at Clifton Lane, as opposed to a round dozen in Wasps' well-appointed west London nest at Loftus Road.

So what? Who cares if the Sky production team thinks Rotherham is a sulphurous dump of a venue without a camera angle worthy of the name; if opponents are offended by the lack of a jacuzzi in the away dressing-room; if the visiting management grumble at the poor quality of pre-match canape? The Tykes deserve their shot at the big time; heaven knows, they've worked for it. What is of major concern, though, is the performance of the up-country contingent as a whole for, if Rotherham finish at the foot of the pole next spring and either Sale or Newcastle join them in the bottom two, the future of professional union north of Leicester will be very bleak indeed.

From the day the International Board cut the amateur cord and sanctioned the dash for cash without bothering to check whether anyone this side of the equator had the slightest idea where sufficient sums of money might be located, the great and good of the English game have wrestled with the problem of keeping top-grade rugby alive in the football-driven areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-east. The franchise theory, still being kicked around the committee rooms of Twickenham, is the latest manifestation of that urge: one franchise to the west of the Pennines, one to the east and one for the Geordies. Very neat, very tidy, very snug.

But if the northern effort goes badly pear-shaped over the next nine months, the franchise supporters will be confronted by a credibility gap wider than a Springbok prop. How could the north possibly justify three élite places on the back of a widespread failure to compete? Why not give a franchise to Cornwall, where the team would at least attract something resembling a crowd while losing 90 per cent of their matches?

Two of Newcastle, Sale and Rotherham need to perform this term, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of a huge swathe of under-developed union country from Manchester to Tyneside. Recent history suggests that the prospects are not great: Newcastle won the 1997-98 Premiership when they found themselves briefly ahead of the game in rugby's flirtation with free-market economics, and Sale finished sixth the same season. But in eight of the last 10 years, a northern club has finished in the bottom two. Of the last 20 English knock-out finalists, only two have come from the northern shires; even worse, the north remains virgin territory for the Heineken Cup.

More worrying still, attendances are desperate. Newcastle generally play in front of two men and a dog. At Sale, the dog tends not to bother.

However, there is a hint of an upturn in fortunes. Sale, destitute for much of the last five years, have a new backer in Brian Kennedy, whose financial clout has left the admirable Adrian Hadley, the long-suffering director of rugby at Heywood Road, holding folding for the first time since he left rugby league. Newcastle, meanwhile, have a switched-on management - Rob Andrew, Steve Bates, Steve Black - and a whole posse of brilliant young backs. If Andrew can hold his side together for another 18 months or so, he will be in business with a vengeance.

Eighteen months is a long time, though, especially with the other three English divisions - the Midlands, the West and London - storming ahead both on and off the field. Northampton and Leicester currently hold the silverware that really matters - the Heineken Cup and the Premiership Trophy respectively - and are in reasonable shape to defend their titles. Their challengers will come from the West, where Bath and Gloucester have real momentum behind them, and from the capital, where Saracens have a side to die for and both Wasps and Harlequins are confident of making amends for last season's inconsistencies. The northern triumvirate already suspect that the big issues will be decided with minimal input from themselves.

Which is not to say that the title race will be anything other than tight: there are enough class acts to raise the roof on a regular basis and besides, this is a Lions season. With a shot at the world champions of Australia riding on the back of the domestic campaign, the big players will be looking to make the big statements. To misquote Yeats, the best will be full of passionate intensity. Depressingly, Jonny Wilkinson may be the only northern-based player on the plane to Sydney come May 2001. Pray God he stays fit.