Why the imports must be curbed

Chris Rea believes the big clubs are wrong to argue with the RFU
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The Independent Online
THERE are two ways of looking at this league season in England. One is that Bath, who have endured more narrow squeaks in this campaign than during the five seasons in which they won Championship titles, have been operating below their best. The other is that the competition has been fiercer than ever before with more clubs capable of sustaining a championship challenge while the gap between top and tail narrows. There is some evidence in support of the latter if only because one of the mighty - Northampton or Harlequins - seems likely to fall. But in truth very little has changed.

Bath, as acquisitive as squirrels in September, look set to accumulate trophies at much the same rate as they collect players, and what they drop from their table of plenty, Leicesterclean up. It would not have required Nostradamus to predict that yesterday's game between the two would almost certainly decide the championship. Yet there has still been room for romance, provided by Wasps and Sale, although Wasps' welcome appearance in the Cup final isless surprising than Sale's avoidance of relegation. That both have reached their targets with refreshing exuberance has been the one bonus in an otherwise disjointed and discordant domestic season.

In one area, however, the senior clubs are united - their furious rejection of the RFU's insistence that a limit be placed on a number of non-Englishmen playing in club competitions. They, it seems, are happy to accommodate as many mercenaries as they can from the Celtic fringes. There's none so blind as those who will not see, and having accused the RFU of short- sightedness in the structuring of the present domestic season, the clubs are themselves guilty of a stupefying lack of vision.

There is no doubt that the recruitment of players on the present scale from other home countries is counter-productive for English rugby and for the game in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Competitions shorn of their brightest talents will not only lose their lustre but will ultimately lose their way. The Scottish Rugby Union are even more concerned about the situation than the RFU. And why should the English game provide the breeding ground for Celtic improvements? Half the Scotland pack this season were playing south of the border. In any case there is a glut of home-grown talent on the market.

Bath, having unearthed the gifted Rich Butland at fly-half, where England's long-term future looks least assured, have now signed Mark Mapletoft from Gloucester. They have three scrum-halfs at the Recreation Ground who would walk into most First Division sides and enough flankers to fit out at least two countries participating in the World Cup. It is a ludicrous and almost obscene waste of talent.

The clubs are considering legal action, but on what grounds? They are perfectly free to recruit a thousand Celts and overseas players if they so wish, but they will be required to play no more than two of them in league or Cup matches. Similar restrictions are imposed on football clubs playing in European competitions. Cricket, too, has reached the conclusion that the unrestricted recruitment of overseas players was having a detrimental effect on the domestic game. From this distance the RFU would seem to have an unarguable case.

Yet try as they might, their best efforts have a disturbing tendency to backfire. It was wholly predictable that the ill-informed would seek to contrast what they see as the Rugby League's enlightened initiatives with the apparent bone-headedness of the RFU over their treatment of the clubs and their failure immediately to endorse proposals for the formation of a European Super League.

Rupert Murdoch's buy-out of the league code and the unseemly haste with which the sport has sold what is left of its soul has merely confirmed a game on the verge of bankruptcy both on and off the field. It could yet turn out to be the most devilish of all pacts. Rugby union does not need nor would it ever court such all-consuming patronage. If rugby union, acting in harmony can somehow make the right moves now - and that does not mean a rush to espouse professionalism - it could not only ensure its own future but wreck rugby league's brazen efforts to be a major sport in this country and a global force. That, after all, is no more and no less than league is at present trying to do to union.

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