The English club scene does not need radical surgery. Players just need to do what they are already doing, but rather better

Click to follow
By all accounts, this has been anything but a good season in English rugby. The way they tell it, you have to feel sorry for all those television experts, former players and rugby correspondents who have each and every Saturday afternoon ruined as the First Division clubs systematically destroy the sport.

Leicester's win at Bath on Saturday - only the fourth there by a visiting side in the history of the league, remember - was roundly rubbished, especially by the grand figure of Norman Hadley on Rugby Special on Sunday afternoon.

The fashionable view seems to be that the English club scene is a desert - devoid of ambition, genuine competition, skill, emerging talent, ideas, facilities or hope for the future. Leicester's win was a disgrace. We will never compete with the Southern hemisphere at this rate, will we? We will never have a game into which television will be eager to pump its millions; never have decent grounds or decent games played upon them this way, will we?

Well, certainly not just yet, but we should not be without hope. Let us begin in the middle - the pitch - where the evidence of a wandering watcher, armed with his satellite dish for home comfort, is that more sides are at least trying to play Jack Rowell's much-vaunted "dynamic" game than at any time in the past five years. In the First Division, only Leicester (whose forwards are too far ahead of their backs), Bristol (who are not very good) and Gloucester (even worse) have seldom tried to set a decent pace. Even West Hartlepool have stuck to their principles, despite their parlous position.

Of the others, Bath have often taken the game to a different level (their first half-hour at Harlequins earlier in the season was simply dazzling, for example), Wasps and Saracens, who have met in two of the faster games of the year, have tried, while Sale have been a constant joy whenever (and it has not been often enough) the cameras have been on them.

Which leads us to Saturday's game at the Rec, and the scathing comments of the experts. Good grief, here are Leicester, desperate to close ground on Bath, with that front row, that man in the second row, and that giant in the back row, playing against the most mobile, flexible side in the league on a pitch where rice would grow happily, and they are expected to fling the ball about. It would not happen in Auckland and it was never going to happen here.

At the same time in north London, by way of diversion, Wasps were beating Saracens. Nothing unusual there, of course, except that they really should not have done. Saracens, no longer the poor relations but still, in the best possible sense, the most inhospitable place for a visiting side, created a real variety of chances in the first half - all through vibrant movement and invention - and but for letting the last pass go astray would have won. Add in yesterday's little signing and a lot more work on the practice pitch, and they would have done.

The point is that the English club scene does not need radical surgery, the players just need to do what they are already doing rather better.

A seriously competitive league helps that, of course, although I do not suppose many Bath players feel it is a soft division just at the moment. But even if it were, it is not going to stay so for long. Picture the top of the First Division in three years' time (just before the next World Cup). Bath are being challenged not just by Leicester, Harlequins and Wasps but also by Northampton and Newcastle, with Sale (now firmly connected to Manchester United) and the newly housed and financed Saracens breathing down their necks. Where are the easy games?

That will, in turn, harden the younger players. Not that we are totally devoid of them now. Back to Southgate on Saturday. The match was marketed (posters around the area and on sale in the clubhouse afterwards) as "The Crunch" between two back-row forwards, Anthony Diprose of Saracens and Lawrence Dallaglio of Wasps. Both are 23. Saracens also relied heavily on their brilliant open-side flanker Richard Hill, who is 22, while perhaps the decisive figure in the match was Andy Gomarsall, the Wasps scrum-half, who is 21. All are involved with England squads.

This does not mean that everything is going as smoothly as a Leicester line-out. Of course, there are bad games - there always have been, and always will be. A personal grouse is the apparent fixation with the short- side; Toulouse's wonderful second try on Sunday shows what width can achieve. But at club level, the signs seem to the non-coaching eye to be better than they were. And for England? That is another story altogether.

Alan Watkins is on holiday