Proposed British league 'threatens to overload players'

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The Independent Online

Nothing ever happens in rugby union without the world and his dog having a say in the matter; if recent rumours are to be believed, the International Board is setting up a committee purely to discuss the latest designs for players' jockstraps. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Six Nations Committee and European Rugby Cup Ltd should involve themselves in the Great British League Debate.

Nothing ever happens in rugby union without the world and his dog having a say in the matter; if recent rumours are to be believed, the International Board is setting up a committee purely to discuss the latest designs for players' jockstraps. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Six Nations Committee and European Rugby Cup Ltd should involve themselves in the Great British League Debate.

Roger Pickering, the chief executive of the first body and tournament director of the second, cast serious doubt over the proposed new venture yesterday, thereby ensuring that, in Monty Python terms, we are in for the full half-hour argument rather than the five-minute version.

"I have my reservations about a British league," pronounced Pickering during a Heineken Cup forum in Glasgow. "A review is taking place at the moment and it has many facets, but the most important guys in the whole debate are the players and I am particularly concerned that we are asking too much of them.

"In an already crowded season, I do not see how a British league could be injected. Even if the players said they could play 45 games a season, I'm not sure the supporters would go for it.

"We have to put ourselves in a position where a northern hemisphere team can win the World Cup in Australia in 2003, where we can have a good representation at the semi-final stages. Overloading the players is not the way to achieve that objective. We need to look at how many matches we want our players to take on during a 12-month period and then set our priorities in terms of competition. At the moment, the order of priorities is the World Cup, the Six Nations, European rugby and domestic rugby."

Pickering is not alone in questioning whether a British league is even desirable, let alone practical. Although Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, has received a unanimous mandate from his fellow investors to explore a new cross-border option, he does not have unqualified support at Premiership level.

A number of clubs, thought to include two recent domestic champions in Wasps and Newcastle, are acutely concerned at the ramifications of the so-called "Walkinshaw Plan", which is geared towards a ring-fenced English élite playing matches against similarly protected Welsh and Scottish outfits. Not surprisingly, the alarm bells are ringing in several Welsh clubhouses, too.

Meanwhile, a three-man ERC disciplinary tribunal was being convened in Glasgow yesterday evening to hear the appeal of Richard Nones, the Colomiers prop banned for two years for allegedly gouging an opponent during the Heineken Cup match at Pontypridd almost a fortnight ago.

The punishment, Draconian in the extreme but in line with International Board guidelines, was meted out by the match commissioner, Huw Lewis, without the benefit of video footage.

While Nones was fighting for his livelihood - now 30, he could scarcely hope to resume a professional career at 32 - Pickering was adamant that the clampdown on foul play would continue. "If in doubt, referees should be firm," he said. "Providing they have made the right decision, we will back them to the hilt. We have a responsibility to our sponsors and broadcasters, who want to see outstanding games of rugby, not violence. Rugby is an extremely physical sport and we have to recognise that there will be occasional flare-ups and the odd punch here and there, but there is no place for head-stamping or gouging in our game."

In Pool Five of the European Shield yesterday, Biarritz enjoyed a convincing away victory, beating a Spain XV 59-3 in Tudela. The Spanish have now lost all three of their pool matches, while Biarritz share first place on points with Gloucester.

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