Reluctant players refuse to endorse Cardiff showpiece

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The Independent Online

Fresh from staging a masterpiece of high farce over the hosting of next year's World Cup, the International Rugby Board is involved in another piece of comic sporting theatre – this one concerning the proposed cross-hemisphere challenge match between the North and the South at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium in November. The IRB considers the game a great idea, not least because its chairman, Vernon Pugh, thought of it. Sadly for the board, just about everyone else thinks the opposite.

The International Rugby Players' Association made it abundantly clear yesterday that it would not endorse the event because of fears over player burn-out – a fear expressed by the IRB itself on numerous recent occasions. As the IRPA represents members of national associations in England, France, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, there is every likelihood of a boycott of the game and, inevitably, a trial of strength with the IRB.

Tony Dempsey, the Australian chairman of the IRPA, openly questioned the IRB's motives in organising the fixture without consultation with players' representatives. "The board suggests the North v South match is necessary to raise funds for the development of second-tier rugby nations," he said. "However, this begs certain questions. What is being done with the profit from the 1999 World Cup and the thousands of pounds held by the IRB in reserve accounts? What is to be done with the millions made from the 2003 World Cup?

"All the studies undertaken thus far on the welfare of the modern professional rugby player confirm that, with the increasing standard of play, there exists a corresponding increase in injury rates. It seems strange that the IRB would want to put the health of the game's most valuable resource at risk with further matches in an already cluttered international season, and it is disappointing that the board is attempting to host such a match without first embracing the IRPA's legitimate claims over player welfare."

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Professional Rugby Players' Association in England, Damian Hopley, said: "We are supporting the IRPA's stance. We're disappointed and concerned that the welfare issue isn't higher up the agenda."

As things stand, the game will be played on 30 November, a week after the conclusion of autumn international series in Europe. There is little prospect of any élite English or French players participating, because their clubs will be involved in serious domestic business that weekend. The leading southern hemisphere internationals will be available, having completed their season's work, but with New Zealand and Australia keen to rest their prize assets in advance of the World Cup, many of them will be heading for the nearest beach, rather than downtown Cardiff.

London Irish, happily making hay at the top end of the Premiership, and Bath, up to their necks in quicksand at the bottom, were active on the transfer front yesterday. The Exiles signed the 23-year-old international lock Bob Casey from Leinster, thereby bucking the recent trend of ambitious Irishmen leaving England for the Emerald Isle.

Bath, meanwhile, announced that Mark Gabey is to leave the Recreation Ground for Worcester, the eternal bridesmaids of National League One. Gabey has been a handy performer this season, both at lock and in the back row, and his departure provides more evidence of the club's confused approach to the art of squad-building.

There are definite signs of a team taking shape at the Borders, the latest professional team to be launched in Scotland. Seventeen players have been confirmed for next season, including eight members of Edinburgh's Heineken Cup squad – Craig Dunlea, Iain Fairley, Richard Metcalfe, Cameron Murray, Steve Scott, Matthew Taylor, Kevin Utterson and Tony Walker. Two first-choice internationals, Gregor Townsend and Scott Murray, are also considering joining.