The second most important change is that rugby football has at last come to terms with the invention of the jet engine

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The Independent Online
The most important development of the past few years is the open professionalisation of rugby. Indeed, it is the most crucial change in the entire history of the game. The second most important change, in my opinion - for some people would say it is in the laws - is that rugby football has at last come to terms with the invention of the jet engine.

It is something I have long urged in this column (which recently celebrated or, rather, refrained from celebrating its 10th anniversary). Lengthy tours, I argued, were no longer necessary. Rugby footballers could now travel the world with as much ease as United Nations officials or national politicians, and with considerably more agility, though the size of aircraft seats, and the leg room they allowed, might present certain problems with forwards the size they are.

So it has turned out. South Africa have been briefly in France and on Sunday travel to Cardiff. Australia have played the Celtic nations but not England and met the Barbarians on their visit to Twickenham. England have played Italy, and a virtual New Zealand Test side masquerading as the New Zealand Barbarians are to meet Argentina on Saturday. It is as mouvemente as the revived property market in Islington. It has been highly instructive. But I do not think it has been very well worked out.

For instance: why could Australia not have played a full England side? What was the objection? Last Saturday's match was held on a full League day which saw, among other things, an epic encounter between Bath and Harlequins.

Bath would have been reluctant to release such players as Phil de Glanville, Jeremy Guscott, Mike Catt, Adedayo Adebayo and Jon Sleightholme, even if it seems that Sleightholme can only get a game for England these days, as the club understandably prefers Jason Robinson on the right wing. Quins would have felt the same about Will Carling and Jason Leonard, who was not playing on Saturday because he was injured.

The compromise was that Australia met a Barbarians XV, though the Barbarians were themselves a compromise side. They did not include any of the players just mentioned or either of the Quins' Irishmen, Jim Staples and Keith Wood. On these occasions the Barbarians have traditionally fielded a Lions XV including, however, one uncapped player. The side they assembled on Saturday was undoubtedly formidable - on paper, at any rate. They were a substantial tribute to the organisation and appeal of the club, who have been written off even more frequently than today's Oxford v Cambridge match. But nevertheless they were not the strongest available side in the British Isles.

The other result of the pre-Christmas comings and goings has been a renewal of head-shaking and, sometimes, head-banging about the superiority of the southern hemisphere. Can we, will we ever, do we sincerely want to catch up? These are the questions that have been most earnestly discussed. It is surely time to put them into some kind of historical perspective.

South Africa and New Zealand have always been the two major powers. South Africa have made a remarkable recovery from their long spell of exclusion from international rugby. The British Isles have enjoyed a limited period, not of clear superiority, but of having a slight edge. This was in 1970- 75.

The main historical development has been the rise of Australia, all the more laudable (to the extent that praise or blame comes into it at all) because the game in Australia has to compete with rugby league, with football and with Australian Rules football. Within the British Isles the broad developments have been the rise of England and the decline of Wales.

The rise of England has meant that our forwards are now able to compete physically, though not always in terms of mental agility, with those of South Africa and New Zealand. The decline of Wales, whose strength was always in their backs, has meant that we (I mean the British Isles as a whole) no longer possess that slight superiority behind the scrum which, however, was never enough to win matches on its own.

John Hart, the New Zealand manager, said after the New Zealand-Barbarians match that England had not got the balance right between weight and speed. No doubt he is correct. It would also be helpful if players learnt to do the simple things: to give a pass, to take a pass and not to kick the ball straight back at the opposition.

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