Two English Premiership clubs, Saracens and newly promoted Rotherham, yesterday rejected accusations from the Fijian national team that they were "walking all over Test rugby" as the tensions between the haves and have-nots intensified in the run-up to next month's World Cup in Australia.
Fiji demanded that the sport's governing body, the International Rugby Board, take action against the Saracens lock Simon Raiwalui and the Rotherham scrum-half Jacob Rauluni unless they made themselves available for the tournament, claiming they had been pushed into a corner on the issue.
The Pacific islanders are unlikely to win the argument. The IRB will not intervene unless there is a dispute between two national unions - "It is up to Fiji to raise this issue with the union exercising jurisdiction over the teams concerned, in this case the Rugby Football Union," Chris Rea, the board's communications manager, said - and Saracens and Rotherham are adamant they did not pressurise their respective players.
"I can't remember the number of times we've told the Fijians that this is Simon's decision," Mark Sinderberry, the Saracens chief executive, said. "In fact, he made the decision some months before he joined us from Newport. Nicky Little, who will be playing for Fiji in the World Cup, is also a member of this club, but we don't hear too much about about him, do we? Simon has been a loyal servant to Fijian rugby for years. I think they should show him some respect."
Jim Kilfoyle, Sinderberry's opposite number at Rotherham, told a similar tale on behalf of Rauluni. "We have put him under no pressure whatsoever," he said. "I understand the Fijians' problems - it's tough when you lose a player of Jacob's quality. But he has decided that he wants to play a full season in the Premiership, and he was free to make that choice."
Fijian officials, including the coach Mac McCallion, believe the IRB is empowered to suspend players if clubs fail to release them for international activity. "These two have 82 caps between them and their experience is crucial to this Fiji team," McCallion said. "If rugby is to become a global game, we cannot have the weaker countries fielding weakened teams because professional clubs are undermining it at Test level."
But Rea admitted that the complexities of proving who decided what and when prevented the IRB taking the kind of stand demanded by the islanders. It is the greyest of grey areas and sadly, Fiji are far from alone in facing the problem. Since professionalism kicked in, the Samoans, Tongans, Georgians and Romanians have all struggled to field fully representative teams because many of their most accomplished players cannot afford to jeopardise European wages for the greater glory of their countries' Test honour, which rarely earns them anything more substantial than the odd free sandwich.
Wales, a fully professionalised union despite frequent outbreaks of rank amateurism on the field, have omitted the Llanelli lock Chris Wyatt and the Cardiff centre Jamie Robinson from their World Cup squad. Two highly talented young half-backs, Mike Phillips and Gavin Henson, have also been ignored. Alix Popham of Leeds is the only exile included - he joins the fast-improving Jonathan Thomas in a quintet of back-row specialists - while the Jones boys from Neath, Duncan and Adam, form precisely 50 per cent of the prop contingent.
Shane Williams' re-emergence at the top level will delight the whole of west Wales, although his selection slammed the door on Phillips, the Llanelli prodigy considered to be the best Welsh scrum-half prospect since Terry Holmes. Elsewhere in the backs, Ceri Sweeney's inventive displays at outside-half have earned him a place alongside Stephen Jones and Iestyn Harris, while Kevin Morgan has been selected at full-back despite his questionable fitness.
Steve Hansen, the coach, must reduce the 31-man squad by one before 10 September. One of the four hookers - Robbie McBryde, Gareth Williams, Mefin Davies and Huw Bennett - will be the last-minute casualty.
WALES WORLD CUP SQUAD
BACKS: K Morgan (Celtic Warriors), R Williams (Cardiff), G Evans (Llanelli), G Thomas (Celtic Warriors), M Jones, M Taylor (both Llanelli), T Shanklin (Cardiff), S Parker (Celtic Warriors), I Harris (Cardiff), C Sweeney (Celtic Warriors), S Jones, D Peel (both Llanelli), G Cooper (Celtic Warriors), S Williams (Neath-Swansea).
FORWARDS: J Thomas (Neath-Swansea), M Williams (Cardiff), C Charvis (unattached), D Jones (Llanelli), A Popham (Leeds), M Owen (Gwent), G Llewellyn (Neath-Swansea), R Sidoli, B Cockbain, G Jenkins (all Celtic Warriors), A Jones, D Jones (both Neath-Swansea), I Thomas (Llanelli), G Williams (Cardiff), R McBryde (Llanelli), H Bennett (Neath-Swansea), M Davies (Celtic Warriors).
- More about: