Spot the difference as new era kicks off

The new rugby union season opens today after a momentous week but, on the pitch at least, the game looks remarkably familiar, says Steve Bale
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You could hardly say the new era is being heralded with a fanfare. Far from it: the 1995/96 season, which arrives today with September, looks much like any other except that in playing terms it is actually rather less appealing than usual.

There is not even the benefit of a major incoming tour. Leading players may be hoping to make their fortunes but it is a measure of international rugby's concentration of power that, even with 67 countries in the International Board, only South Africa, New Zealand or Australia are guaranteed box- office.

England have at least managed to get the Springboks for a November Test, though nothing else, and otherwise it is left to Western Samoa (in Scotland and England) and Fiji (Wales and Ireland) to give the autumn some spice. Apologies to the islanders, but they are not the same - whether or not the new Twickenham is filled to its 75,000 capacity for the Samoans.

Otherwise the first professional - sorry, open - season looks very much like the last amateur - sorry, shamateur - one. The big difference is that players will be judged more harshly and a loss of form might cost not only a place in the team, but also a week's wages. Those who thought they gave rugby plenty under the old rules have not even begun to understand what it will be like to be contracted semi-professionals.

How ironic that by opening the whole thing up, the International Board has gone much further than many of the leading proponents of change ever said they wanted. For instance Brian Moore, the England hooker, though never so fatuous as to deny wishing to be paid for running on the field, used to suggest that the last thing he wanted was to be tied to a contract.

A contract involves a quid pro quo and as Vernon Pugh, the Welshman who guided the IB into its momentous decisions, said yesterday, this for the first time places an absolute responsibility on the player. "There is a fantastic opportunity because the climate for a number of years has been players being paid without any mutual obligation on their part, by a payment that was not reflective of quality or commitment.

"Now the clubs can demand a quality of performance that is equivalent to the reward they are about to pay out." Pugh was talking specifically about Welsh rugby, but his strictures apply equally to England.

Note the admission that players have been remunerated previously. The IB meeting was an occasion for baring the soul and even Peter Brook, one of the English representatives, had to admit that the Rugby Football Union itself was "not lilywhite".

Considering the sanctimony that had occasionally emanated from Twickenham on this vexed subject, it was quite a confession, but now that the game has "gone honest" - as Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, put it - the home unions are still left with the problem of competing with the southern hemisphere. The playing field is no more level now than it was before.

On a practical level there remains the fundamental requirement, this season as last, to find a means of bridging club and international rugby. Every one of the home countries came home from the World Cup bemoaning the inadequacy of its own domestic competition.

Hence the embryonic European competition, taking in clubs from Wales, France, Italy and Romania, and representative sides from Ireland, that will kick off in November and conclude in January. When the English and Scots join in next season, it may do something to replicate the sub-international rugby Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans enjoy through what was the Super 10 and is now the Super 16.

It is a big conditional, though, and in any case for the time being England will have to make do with Courage. How perceptions change: the early part of last season produced the most compelling rugby in the league's history, yet here we are a year on with everyone - but everyone - in the game bemoaning the inadequacy of domestic rugby.

But then perceptions have changed for ever in the past week and in the era of honesty most people, including even the likes of Hallett and Pugh, honestly cannot know where the game is heading. Thus, when Ian Beer was the RFU president last year, he warned that professionalism and violence would go hand in hand, or rather fist in fist. This week Hallett could see no earthly reason why this should be the case. You pays your money...


INTERNATIONAL MATCHES: 2 Sept South Africa v Wales (Johannesburg). 11 Nov France v New Zealand (Toulouse); Wales v Fiji (Cardiff). 18 Nov England v South Africa (Twickenham); France v New Zealand (Paris); Ireland v Fiji (Dublin); Scotland v Western Samoa (Murrayfield). 16 Dec England v Western Samoa (Twickenham).

UNIVERSITY MATCH: 12 Dec Oxford v Cambridge (Twickenham).

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: 20 Jan France v England (Paris); Ireland v Scotland (Dublin). 3 Feb England v Wales (Twickenham); Scotland v France (Murrayfield). 17 Feb France v Ireland (Paris); Wales v Scotland (Cardiff). 2 March Ireland v Wales (Dublin); Scotland v England (Murrayfield). 16 March England v Ireland (Twickenham); Wales v France (Cardiff).