Six Nations collapse would cool club-country conflict

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The Independent Online

The Six (then the Five) Nations' Championship last ended inconclusively in 1972. In that season the Welsh Rugby authorities refused to travel to Dublin because of the risk of violence by the IRA or other terrorist groups. In this season the Irish authorities, acting in accordance with the instructions of the government of the Republic, have decreed that no national team from the British mainland should cross the Irish Sea until 30 days have passed since the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease from that mainland.

The Six (then the Five) Nations' Championship last ended inconclusively in 1972. In that season the Welsh Rugby authorities refused to travel to Dublin because of the risk of violence by the IRA or other terrorist groups. In this season the Irish authorities, acting in accordance with the instructions of the government of the Republic, have decreed that no national team from the British mainland should cross the Irish Sea until 30 days have passed since the eradication of foot-and-mouth disease from that mainland.

Whether the Dublin government has any jurisdiction over the use to which Ravenhill Park, Belfast, may be put is something I rather doubt. In olden times the ground was co-host for internationals with Lansdowne Road, Dublin, though a strict alternation was not observed. The last home international to be played in Belfast was in February 1954.

It is unlikely that the Irish Rugby Union would defy the wishes of the Dublin government. If it tried, and the Rugby Football Union then joined it in its defiance, agreeing to stage the postponed Ireland v England fixture at Ravenhill rather than at Lansdowne Road, the Westminster government would also become involved.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, might say that the rescheduled Belfast fixture was contrary to the spirit of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Those of us who relish a spot of trouble, and believe that sporting authorities should not invariably do precisely as their national governments require, would enjoy the row. But it will not happen.

My own feeling - it is more than a guess, less than a firm prediction - is that the whole international season will end unresolved. The Wales v Ireland game has been rescheduled for 29 April, while the weekends of 5-6 May and 12-13 May have been set aside for postponed games (Ireland v England and Scotland v Ireland are, at the moment, the fixtures left outstanding).

Though I am no expert, I should have thought it unlikely that foot-and-mouth would be eradicated completely by 13 April. Accordingly it would make no difference if the Ireland v England fixture were to be played at Ravenhill. The Irish team would not come - would not be allowed to come - to the Millennium Stadium and Murrayfield to fulfil, respectively, their Welsh and Scottish fixtures.

In the summer there is the Lions tour of Australia, in which no fewer than 37 players will be involved, to the inevitable impoverishment of the national sides. Then the new season begins, these days almost as early as the football season.

There is one little ray of sunshine poking through the clouds. If the Six Nations collapses because of the cancellation of the rescheduled matches, the much advertised conflict between the countries and the clubs will not take place after all. This does not mean that the problem will have gone away - merely that it has been put off for another day.

The immediate cause of the row is the Zurich Premiership play-offs. Who needs them anyway? They constitute unnecessary additional competition whose hurried construction was motivated solely by commercial greed.

For myself, I propose to treat these artificial matches with what the late George Brown once called a complete ignoral. I would urge sports editors to adopt the same policy. If Leicester end up top of the table, as they are virtually certain to do, they are the champions. What then is the point of having the play-offs at all?

Most of my colleagues have written as if these ridiculous matches would affect all four home countries. In reality their impact would be on England and, secondarily, on Scotland. Ian McGeechan, the Scotland coach, continues rightly to pick players from Wasps and, in particular, from Northampton.

Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, has encouraged players to move back to Ireland - though it may be that the policy is that of the Irish Rugby Union - but continues to rely on Rob Henderson, of Wasps, and, to a lesser extent, on Kevin Maggs, of Bath.

Allan Bateman, of Northampton, continues as part of the Welsh squad. But Graham Henry, the coach, has adopted the same policy as Gatland, though with not much to show for it so far this season.

All the Celtic clubs or districts are more generous with their players than the English clubs are. They are not so rich, selfish or greedy as the English clubs - or, rather, as their new businessmen-proprietors are. The obvious solution is for England to pick a squad of 30 players or, if funds permit, 45 or even 60 at the beginning of the international season and to place them under exclusive contract to the RFU. But through good or, perhaps bad luck, the conflict is likely to be less acute this year than it might otherwise have been.

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