Peter Corrigan: Broken heroes - a lesson still to be learned

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At the risk of upsetting Sir Clive Woodward so early in his knightdom, it is worth pointing out an incongruity that occurred during the last few weeks of English rugby's annus mirabilis. While the same Sir Clive was relaxing on the Alpine ski slopes, his heroes were being mown down en masse while in action for their clubs.

Being pummelled and pounded is an occupational hazard in rugby, but the fact that no fewer that 15 of the England squad are suffering various heavy injuries is slightly alarming. There are almost as many of them on the casualty list as there were in the New Year Honours list. In all, just about a dozen of the 31 Sydney supermen finished games in one piece in last weekend's Zurich Premiership. Gung-ho they most certainly are not.

The ailments range from the smashed ankle suffered by Mike Tindall playing for Bath against Saracens to Jonny Wilkinson's latest shoulder injury, incurred while tank-tackling against Northampton. For a group of superbly conditioned men who came through six gruelling World Cup weeks comparatively unscathed to be so communally clobbered in such a short time would make an interesting subject for study by sports scientists.

None of this, of course, is meant to suggest that Sir Clive was not entitled to his winter break. No man was more deserving of a holiday with his family away from the hullabaloo. It is just a shame that his players could not have enjoyed a similar period of rest and recuperation. They would not have felt they needed it when they returned from Australia sated with the adrenalin of World Cup winners. To have reached heights never before touched by rugby players from these islands was an uncharted experience.

Those who were able could not wait to throw themselves back into their club teams as soon as possible. But there was bound to be a reaction during the period between subsiding euphoria and a successful readjustment to more workaday physical and mental demands. Whether that would affect their form or their vulnerability to opponents anxious to make their own mark, I am not qualified to say. But there is no doubt that a more prolonged break before re-entering their normal world would have been sensible, and a far more merciful reward than a wheelbarrow full of medals. Not that it would have been possible, because their clubs, who had already suffered from their long absence, were aching to get them back into battles already raging.

Those clubs were critical enough of the Rugby Football Union for arranging that Twickenham friendly against the New Zealand Barbarians. Joyous occasion as it was, it led to several injuries, including Richard Hill being stiff-armed by a scalp-hunter and suffering a broken nose that will keep him out for a further month.

With hindsight, there is so much to be learned, and we must trust that more realistic domestic schedules will be arranged for the aftermaths of future World Cups.

The timing of the 2003 version was never going to favour the northern-hemisphere teams. It came at the end of the Australian, New Zealand and South African seasons, so they had a ready-made rest ahead. The northerners faced a further five months of furious action, starting with the Heineken Cup. Considering they had spent 15 months of almost continuous involvement before the tournament began, it was always going to be a tall order - and the more successful you were, the taller it became.

The Irish, Welsh, Scots were back in time to make a more comfortable adjustment. The French followed a week later, perhaps a little crestfallen but with the opportunity to ease their way back. The English, however, came home to a reception that guaranteed a slow and bewildering descent to earth. Even those who were confident that England would win the trophy could not have foreseen the effect it would have on the nation or, more importantly, on a group of outstanding players.

When Woodward said that as from 1 January the World Cup would be banished to memory as the players focused on the future, it sounded a wise statement. They may well succeed in putting the tournament out of their minds, but the repercussions are going to rumble for a lot longer than anyone could have imagined.

The contribution that co-operating clubs made to England's triumph has been deservedly praised and held up as an example to their football counterparts. But it will not be until the end of the season that clubs will be able to reckon up the true size of that contribution. One or two must be already muttering the unpatriotic thought that, for some, it will turn out to be a pyrrhic victory. For the rest of us it is a reminder that we are nowhere near solving the increasing problem of the ludicrous demands we are making on our team players.

Every time we step into a new year we succeed in fooling ourselves that we are making a fresh start, but there is no sorrier illusion. We just drag the old problems behind us, and the club v country struggle remains one of the most destructive.

Last week, even before the old year had passed away, we saw the first salvo in a war that is bound to escalate. The African Cup of Nations runs for three weeks from 24 January, and 20 or more players from English clubs will be needed by their countries.

Tottenham, for instance, face the loss of their top scorer, Frédéric Kanouté, to represent Mali for a month. The club's caretaker-manager, David Pleat, has already "challenged" Kanouté to stay and help Spurs out of their relegation predicament. The player, who had initially hoped to play for France, where he was born and bred, wants now to accept an invitation to play for Mali, where his parents were born. The pressure on him to stay true to the club is enormous, and you can appreciate their point.

Spurs offered him the chance to stay in the Premiership when West Ham were relegated, and to desert them at this crucial stage of the season would not endear him to anyone at White Hart Lane.

Similar arguments are taking place at many clubs, and nowhere more seriously than at Bolton, who do not want to surrender their popular Nigerian star Jay-Jay Okocha. Their manager, Sam Allardyce, has said that Okocha has played for Nigeria for 10 years and that it is now time for him to retire, particularly as Bolton are in the semi-finals of the Carling Cup and he would miss the final at the Millennium Stadium.

Those who take a more global view stress how important it is for the development of the game in Africa, soon to be offered a World Cup, that countries should be served by their star players in a tournament that could show off African football as never before. The attitude of the clubs is not personal - Wales and Ireland have been having the same problem for a century - but it will be seen as coldly selfish, and will undoubtedly bring the president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, sailing in with more disparaging words about the English.

There are few situations that he could not make worse, but this one has the hallmarks of a major confrontation. With preparatory matches for Euro 2004 soon coming up, player tug-of-war could be the sport of the new year.

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