Would relegation cost England Tindall, Catt and Grewcock?

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The Independent Online

One prediction can safely be made for next season's Six Nations' Championship. Keith Wood and Kevin Maggs will continue to be part of the Irish set-up whatever may be the respective fates of Harlequins and Bath after the appearance of the final table for the Zurich Premiership. This will be so because Ireland base their selections on the – so far, successful – provincial system rather than on the pecking order of the clubs across the Irish Sea.

Clive Woodward, the England manager, has not yet declared what his policy would be towards the present members of the England squad if one of their clubs should descend to the lower division. Quite a lot of players are potentially involved.

From Harlequins, there are Will Greenwood, Dan Luger, Nick Duncombe and Jason Leonard. For some reason Tony Diprose is currently out of favour, though he strikes me as a superior product to several of those Woodward has placed before him at No 8, but there we are. From Bath we have Matt Perry, Mike Tindall, Iain Balshaw, Mike Catt and Danny Grewcock, with Mark Regan and Andy Long as possible hookers, outside the squad, but useful in reserve.

Even before the advent of professionalism and leagues – and the one is not necessarily dependent on the other – there were certain clubs that were selectors' favourites. Over a decade ago, Leonard and Ben Clarke were advised to move from Saracens if they wanted to better themselves. They ended up at, respectively, Harlequins and Bath.

Today Saracens may have their troubles but they are above these clubs in the table. Fifteen years ago they were ranked a notch or two above, say, Esher. Of the clubs that were considered their superiors, Richmond and London Scottish are no more, killed off by the assorted Mr Moneybags who controlled the Premiership; Rosslyn Park are in the Second Division; while Blackheath languish in the Southern Division below them.

Examples could be multiplied. There was a time, not long after the last war, when Coventry were the most feared team in Britain. They could take on Cardiff with a fair expectation of making a match of it. Today they occupy a respectable but hardly commanding position in National league One with Rotherham the runaway winners virtually guaranteed top position in the final table.

But will this guarantee them a place in the Premiership? On 18 March the matter was in some doubt. On that date the two local MPs, Denis MacShane (Rotherham) and John Healey (Wentworth), issued a press release, part of which went: "The toffs of Twickers who control English rugby are seeking to prevent Rotherham from playing in their league next year despite the fact that Rotherham... are playing outstanding rugby and deserve their chance in the top league.''

The two legislators are also, as it happens, junior ministers. They were addressing a plea for intervention – quite what form it was to take was left unclear – to their colleague Richard Caborn, the Minister for Sport.

It is doubtful whether they had identified the villains correctly. "The toffs of Twickers'' maybe a good phrase for a headline, even if it is a little on the crude side. But the toffs were not, and are not now, the principal obstacles to Rotherham's betterment (for the second time, by the way because they were in the Premiership before). Francis Baron, the Rugby Football Union's chief executive, has promised within the last few days that if they end up top of the First Division, they will be promoted again.

Our two junior ministers are wrong: or their press release, which may have been written by an agency, is wrong. The villains are not the toffs of Twickers but the clubs of the Premiership, or their owners. They framed a set of absurdly exigent criteria for the grounds of other clubs ambitious to join their company; for all the world as if club rugby were a mass-audience sport, which it is not and never will be. These tests were then officially accepted. Rotherham have now fulfilled them by making a ground-sharing agreement with the local football club. If the agreement had been delayed they would have failed them. By this later stage, by now unnecessary, they would have had to show primacy of tenure.

So it looks as if everything will be all right for Rotherham. But will it be less so for Harlequins, Bath or some other club ending up at the bottom of the table? It has recently been floated that the Premiership could be increased from 12 clubs to 14. This would mean there would be no relegation and promotion not only for Rotherham but also, possibly, for Worcester, on whose development their owner has expended so much cash.

Alas, Richmond and London Scottish would have died in vain. But Woodward's squad would be secure. And it is this which is the principle concern of the RFU. The trouble with this solution, designed to keep everyone happy, is that precisely the same question of promotion and relegation will be around this time next year.

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