Leading Article: How rugby's structure helps England to win

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THE CONTRAST could scarcely be greater. At rugby union, England triumph over the seemingly invincible New Zealand All Blacks. At football, it fails to qualify for the World Cup in the United States, even conceding a goal in the first minute of its last-hope game against San Marino. Why should a country that excels at a game involving an oval leather ball be so feeble in a game with a round one?

The explanation is wonderfully simple. The structure of rugby is pyramid- shaped: everything is geared towards the national team, and the vital interests of the game are agreed to be dependent on the fortunes of the England team. In football, that pyramid is inverted: the clubs come first and call the shots. The national team comes low in their priorities. In extenuation of football's failings, it must be said that England has the largest number, globally speaking, of rugby players and fewer than a dozen other countries play it seriously. By contrast, football is played across the world, so competition is that much stiffer.

The consistent strength of English rugby is a relatively recent phenomenon. It owes much to the establishment in 1987 of a comprehensive league structure for the game, and the appointment of a very efficient England manager, Geoff Cooke. The league established a meritocracy, with the best players tending to gravitate to the top five or six clubs. Concurrently, the divisional championship - revived in 1985 and still fighting for psychological acceptance - took the best 60 players out of their cosy club environment and threw them together periodically with other potential England players. Younger aspirants, meanwhile, evolved upwards through a series of England teams for the under-16s, 18s and 21s, not to mention the England A team.

In the Seventies, the England management was notorious for chopping and changing players: they called the victims 'one-cap wonders'. Mr Cooke stopped all that. He identified the talent and kept his faith in those he picked. The same can scarcely be said for successive managers of the England football team. England's rugby renaissance is symbolised by the renovation of its headquarters at Twickenham. National football has no comparable focal point.

If the top rugby clubs, such as Bath, Wasps, Harlequins and Leicester, moved towards the sort of professionalism that characterises football, they too might come to put their own commercial fortunes before the success of the England team. That would be a retrograde step. It is England's victories and the quality of their game that fire the imagination of young players and thus help perpetuate those high standards. It is a lesson England's football clubs might do well to ponder.