Sport at risk to selfish interests

Chris Rea suggests that English rugby must begin to adopt a broader view
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The Independent Online
HAVING for so long been rooted in the 19th century, rugby union is, in one quantum leap, attempting to reach the middle of the 21st ahead of football, cricket and Buck Rogers. To be sure, little or no heed has been paid to the experiences and mistakes of those who have already crossed the minefield of professionalism. The leading English clubs, by pursuing their narrow course of myopic self-interest, will jeopardise the national cause just as surely as the counties have damaged English cricket.

Already, and without so much as a by your leave, or anything remotely resembling a thought for the future, the traditional barriers erected to protect the game from this very kind of vandalism are being mindlessly torn down. The grotesquely inflated sums being offered to overseas mercenaries are matched in their lunacy by the financial inducements to players in Britain of below average ability or above average age.

Rugby, as an expression of national achievement, has not even entered the equation. With the combination of football's inflationary madness and cricket's structural inadequacies, catastrophe is just around the corner. And who will have to pick up the pieces along with the spiralling tab? Why, the very same body that now sits on its hands and looks on in helpless bewilderment from the sidelines.

The single note of triumphalism struck at Twickenham after the Wales match was the reported collapse in the price of black-market tickets. It was hailed as an important victory that a few minutes before kick- off, tickets were exchanging hands at below their face value. But far from being a reason for celebration it should scare rugby's administrators rigid. However much we may loathe the touts, a vibrant market in illegal sales is the most accurate barometer of a sport's robust health.

On the day, of course, the ground was full as it was, remarkably, for the game against Western Samoa, and even more bewilderingly, for the Varsity Match. But for how much longer will spectators pay substantial sums of money to watch the kind of entertainment which was offered at Twickenham on the day England played Wales? An occasion that has always been a unique blend of emotional intensity and unrestrained exuberance was eerily devoid of both as the end of the match drew near. If, in those closing moments, Jack Rowell could not believe what he was seeing, we in the stands could scarcely credit what we were hearing. It was the sound of silence.

In the weeks and months ahead, the RFU must take some of the most colossal decisions in its history. In the midst of the rubble and ashes of the game's past, there are, however, some hopeful signs for its future. Cliff Brittle, the new chairman of the Executive Committee, has made an encouraging start, his bold entry before the Wales game into the media den at Twickenham wherein lurk so many of his fiercest detractors, was a public relations master-stroke. Brittle has it all to do in this area because public relations is not exactly England's forte. The most recent faux pas was the announcement of the team to play Scotland.

Somehow, Rowell, in whose company I have spent two of the most entertaining and instructive evenings of my rugby life, is succeeding in antagonising all sides. I first had my doubts about his methods over the sacking of Dick Best, which was negotiated cravenly through a third party. Then there was the summary dismissal of Paul Hull, the outstanding player on England's tour to South Africa two seasons ago and a league ahead of Mike Catt as an international full-back.

Since then there has been a steady stream of mixed messages. It has been suggested that Rowell has lost the plot, but one is beginning to wonder whether there was ever a plot to lose. If the recall of Tim Rodber for the Welsh game defied logic, his omission from the Calcutta Cup match defies belief, as does the dropping of Martin Bayfield. At least with the recall of Dean Richards, all pretence at playing an expansive game can be dispensed with. Or can it? In those dim and increasingly distant days when England had a plan and a sensibly balanced back row in which Richards played a hugely prominent part, England succeeded in playing some gorgeous rugby.