The year of playing dangerously

Rugby union: The new season finds the game at a crossroads as the money men push back the traditional frontiers; Chris Hewett says the campaign ahead is a challenge and an opportunity
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The Independent Online
Jack Rowell and Ian McGeechan have spent the last fortnight in South Africa watching the two great super powers of world rugby play each other to a standstill in a Test series of epic proportions. If the most influential coaches in the British game feel slightly jetlagged as they return for the start of the domestic campaign on Saturday, they can be forgiven. Different hemispheres? Different planets more like.

Having dined out on the haute cuisine of the Springbok-All Black series, the prospect of nine months of English fare may seem unappetising. But for both Rowell and McGeechan this will be a high-pressure season and the consequences of failure are too grim to contemplate.

Unfortunately for them, the newly professionalised British rugby landscape resembles something from the Book of Revelations. A summer of political and financial shenanigans boarding on the burlesque has knocked the whole edifice out of shape. Uncertainty continues to threaten the existence of the Five Nations Championship, the Anglo-Welsh club competition looks likely to be strangled at birth, English and Welsh clubs have paid a fortune for rugby league imports whose part-time contracts may yet prove disruptive, and Ireland have seen 13 of their first-choice team push off to the mainland with barely a glance over their shoulders.

For McGeechan, who makes the return flight to Johannesburg next year as coach of the British Lions for an unprecedented third time, there is little opportunity to pick a route through the debris. By Christmas he will need to have some sort of tour framework in place. That means settling on key personnel and agreeing a training and rest schedule with clubs whose first priority will be to squeeze every last drop of blood and sweat from players now costing them upwards of pounds 40,000 a year.

At least the experienced and meticulous Scot understands the problems he is likely to encounter - after all, the conflict of interests will be fought out as much in his own back yard as anyone else's. As coach of Northampton, promoted to the top flight last season with a 100 per cent record from 18 League Two outings, he must pursue his club's ambitions without undermining the Lions potential of at least three of his players - Gregor Townsend, the exciting Scotland stand-off, and the England forwards Martin Bayfield and Tim Rodber.

Easier said than done. But if McGeechan is walking a diplomatic tightrope, Rowell will feel another sort of rope tightening around his neck unless he starts backing his own judgement and fielding an England team with which he feels at ease. Will Carling may have led the side to another Five Nations title last season but the Twickenham faithful showed impatience with an ageing and at times numbingly conservative outfit and the uncomfortable fact remains that only three of the players who tied things up against Ireland in March can be completely confident of first-choice status.

Leicester's Martin Johnson, one of the finest front-jumping locks in either hemisphere, and Wasps flanker Lawrence Dallaglio, the favourite to succeed Carling as captain, are two of the cast-iron certainties. The third is Jon Sleightholme, the Bath wing who owes his place to a vintage flash of Rowell intuition - the sort of instinctive selection the coach urgently needs to repeat as he lays the foundations for a 1999 World Cup challenge. Where will his gaze fall? On his old stamping ground at Bath, certainly, where Mike Catt attempts to reassert his credentials as the most incisive attacking stand-off in the country and thus leave the way open for Newcastle's Tim Stimpson to challenge for a Test place at full- back.

But Rowell will probably spend more time at Welford Road, running the rule over a clutch of ambitious Leicester contenders, headed by the front- rowers Richard Cockerill and Darren Garforth and the summer recruits Will Greenwood and Austin Healey at centre and scrum-half respectively. Healey, blindingly quick in thought and deed, may turn out to be the force of nature England require.

Fascinatingly, the Tigers have persuaded Bob Dwyer, Australia's 1991 World Cup-winning coach, to run their show. Quite where that leaves Dean Richards' functional brand of rugby remains to be seen, but the new boss has stated his intention to add some pazzazz to Leicester's predictable modus operandi.

"There's more to this team than a good rolling maul," Dwyer said within a week of taking up residence, adding that he would give the natural tacticians in his side every opportunity to do things their way. Rowell, who despairs that his England decision makers spend more time passing the buck than the ball, will support his old adversary all the way.

London, meanwhile, can boast four sides in the First Division, all of them fielding big-name squads almost unrecognisable from those that set out on the long haul last September. Harlequins, who have cast their net wider than anyone, are obvious title-challenging heavyweights.

However, their United Nations approach will not help Rowell fill the England shop window and he will be more interested in the progress of the young Wasps half-backs, Andy Gomarsall and Alex King, in the new surroundings of Loftus Road. Saracens might exercise his mind too, as new captain Tony Diprose makes his pitch for Richards' No 8 berth and Kyran Bracken attempts to rehabilitate himself under the guidance of the great Wallaby, Michael Lynagh.

Thanks to the emergence of a competitive European club championship and the prospect of the nouveaux riches of Newcastle, Richmond and Bedford putting their bank balances on the line in the second division, the new season will be painted on a broader canvas than ever before. But the suspicion remains that with Australia due in October, the real art will be created by 30 men clad in green and gold. Dwyer may have the last laugh in more ways than one.

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