If the English Premiership’s round-ball autumn has been imbued with a generally browned-off languor, it has at least been far more civil than the bad-blooded rancour of their ‘oval’ cousins. The Rugby Football Union spits more viperishly by the week at what it perceives as the derisive impertinence of the leading clubs. This month marks 10 years of professional rugby union, although in most of its world the bigtime game had been furtively (or not so furtively) shamateur long before 1995. That year itself was a nicely apt anniversary, falling a century after the northern clubs had broken away to play a 13-a-side game which allowed payment to players. Driven by the southern hemisphere countries, the union grudgingly turned pro a decade ago and the old boys’ bastion at Twickenham was not best pleased; it knew it had to go along with the revolution but, desperately stalling, it first demanded time to set up a committee to examine all implications. This at once left an inviting vacuum into which dived a few billionaire speculators who bought a number of the leading English clubs. Some did not stay long, but for those who gamely stuck with the enterprise — dreaming up macho names, funding stadium improvements and overpaying players — they sniff now, apparently, the warming aroma of some decent profits.
The RFU insist that they, spiritually, own the players, certainly those they pick (and pay top-whack extra) to play for England. And because playing for England means practising for England, so the clubs resent the time the leading players are away from home base, often for ersatz money-making Test matches dreamed up by Twickenham to fill its own expensive, underused stadium. The RFU aspire to contract ‘centrally’ the best players, as in cricket where England’s luminaries have become strangers to their county clubs. A successful national team unquestionably induces health for rugby generally. Nor is it an accident that this latest bloody-minded ding-dong coincides with post-World Cup euphoria fast turning into disillusion after some leaden-footed recent shows by the England XV. The calamitous British Lions’ tour in the summer didn’t help the domestic mood either.
Hey-ho for starters. At least this weekend and next should buck up and gladden a morose old game. The Heineken Cup is a vibrantly challenging club competition — rugby’s answer, if you like, to soccer’s European Champions’ League. To dispose of the cliché at once, the Heineken refreshes all parts…. A clatter of stirring continental contests resounds today and tomorrow — and make sure you hang on to your hats next weekend when, respectively on Saturday and Sunday, their heavyweight champs Stade Fran