Together we might all win

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Rob Andrew has taken on a tough challenge in chairing the Club England Task Force but he couldn't ask for better support. The others joining him in this mission to draw up a blueprint for the future of English rugby are England coach, Clive Woodward, Leicester's Dean Richards and Nigel Wray, the main shareholder at Saracens.

Rob Andrew has taken on a tough challenge in chairing the Club England Task Force but he couldn't ask for better support. The others joining him in this mission to draw up a blueprint for the future of English rugby are England coach, Clive Woodward, Leicester's Dean Richards and Nigel Wray, the main shareholder at Saracens.

The four are all top men in their own right and, more importantly, represent a cross-section of rugby interests at the highest level. No doubt, they will have those interests at heart but they are realistic enough to know that there is a higher interest to be served and that no improvement can be achieved in rugby unless a structure can be established that has everybody pulling in the same direction.

Like D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers, their slogan should be "One For All and All For One". But they're going to have to do a lot of fencing and fancy footwork before they can convince everyone of that.

For a start, they are going to have to cast their thoughts outside their own boundaries. English rugby is their prime concern but nothing can be achieved in northern hemisphere rugby by isolation.

Nigel Melville doesn't think so. The director of rugby of London Wasps is all for raising the drawbridge and dropping the portcullis. Last week he posed the question: "Why should we help the Welsh - what good is that going to bring to our game?"

He was replying to a plea from Llanelli's Gareth Jenkins after last weekend's Heineken Cup encounter at Loftus Road which Wasps won 22-13. "We need more of those games," he said. "I think all the northern hemisphere realises we need a competition with more than six or seven games. We need 16 or 17. We would all be better for it."

Melville thinks otherwise. "We already have that many games of the same intensity in the Allied Dunbar League," he retorted. Who needs the Welsh, in other words. Apart from the welcome that awaits Wasps at Stradey Park in the return match, I believe Melville will find other reasons to regret his short-sightedness.

And I certainly don't share his faith in the Allied Dunbar, in which the standards aren't all that great. It hasn't done much for the England team, has it? And neither is Loftus Road bulging at the seams. The English club structure needs a fixture boost as much as anyone and you can't create rivalries like the old ones.

Does he think the past 100 years of English rugby would have been helped by a weak Wales? Of course it wouldn't - and neither will the next 100. And that applies to all the Five (now Six) Nations. Does he think that southern hemisphere rugby would be so powerful if all three of the leading countries weren't so strong and competitive? I trust we can rely on a more enlightened approach from the Task Force.

Not that it is going to be easy to create a structure from which the clubs and the national sides can gain maximum benefit. But I like what I hear from Andrew, who has correctly pointed out that the much-vaunted Super-12 competition is not the cure-all.

I've often said that the main reason that the Super-12 works is that those countries didn't have a good club structure. We've got a great club tradition in place, but we are not making enough of it and perhaps we could do more by creating a few teams to beef up the standard of competition.

There are continual arguments about how many teams from each country should be in the Heineken Cup and, invariably, there are good players whose clubs don't make it and who are denied the benefits of this top-level experience. We could help solve this by creating wild-card teams made up from the best players not involved.

For instance, if Wales were allowed two clubs and one wild-card team we would have, say, Cardiff and Swansea plus a team chosen from the ranks of Llanelli, Pontypridd, Neath, Newport and the rest. Graham Henry could be put in charge of it. Similarly, from England we could have Leicester, Bath and Saracens plus a wildcard XV chosen by Clive Woodward from Wasps, Harlequins and Newcastle. There would be plenty of selection arguments, but the results would be interesting.

The season needs to be structured as well as the clubs. As Andrew says, three months duration for the Six Nations is much too long. Three months should accommodate the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup, leaving the rest of the season for a British league.

Whatever we decide to do with the top level of the game we must remember that we need a solid club structure below it. Maybe the Task Force should grasp the nettle of professionalism, too. We can afford only for the top teams to be paid. The lower leagues should revert to being amateur. Not only will such a move help the smaller clubs to survive, it will give their players an incentive to improve and fight their way to the top. Too many players are earning comfortable money playing undemanding rugby. It is killing ambition, especially among the younger players.

Comments