Question marks surround international season
May 25, 2007
"Suddenly, from the high drama of Twickenham we have moved to the farce of international rugby for the sake of it - or, even worse, just for the money." JT reports
There can never have been a more fitting finale to the season than Wasps' Heineken Cup win over Leicester. It had everything.
The Wasps backroom staff had done a brilliant job in analysing their opponents and were tactically spot on in their game plan but it still needed the players to deliver and they did their coaches proud. The intensity was frightening at times and their concentration never wavered.
Full marks to Sean Edwards but it was a performance that had the wise old head of Ian McGeechan written all over it. I was lucky enough to be involved in the production of 'Living with Lions', the fly on the wall documentary about the 1997 Lions who defeated South Africa against all the odds and there was one memorable speech from 'Geech' where he invited the players to be part of something special.
To paraphrase - he told them they had the chance to make history and produce something that they would remember for the rest of their lives. Never mind the players it gave those of us behind the camera goose-bumps.
I fancy there could have been an equally uplifting monologue last Saturday evening (incidentally you can see the whole unexpurgated 'Living with Lions' on ESPN Classic starting next month).
It was the climax to a great campaign and there was a massive sense of occasion at Twickenham - enough to make everybody see sense and sign-up to a secure future for a tournament that, alongside the Six Nations Championship, is the lifeblood of European rugby.
I just hope the picture sub in 'The Times' had his knuckles rapped after his caption under the photo of Lawrence Dallaglio holding aloft the trophy declared, 'London Wasps celebrate their second European Cup win in three years after a one-sided final yesterday.' The scoreline might have been convincing but there has never been a more hard fought or dramatic 25-9 victory - one sided it was not!
There will not be that same sense of occasion in Bloemfontein or Sydney this weekend. Suddenly, from the high drama of Twickenham we have moved to the farce of international rugby for the sake of it - or, even worse, just for the money.
We all understand that revenue is of paramount importance - the top players have to be paid handsomely these days and grass roots rugby also needs major funding - but the rugby public are not mugs and they will not keep turning out for international matches that have no credibility.
A keen (and wealthy) England supporter summed it up for me earlier this week, 'England playing South Africa used to be really exciting but now it happens twice a year almost every year the excitement's gone - and South Africa v England thirds, well forget it. I shan't even bother to watch on television whereas, 10 years ago, I would have been down there, wouldn't have missed it for the world.'
What sort of advertisement is it for international rugby when England coach, Brian Ashton, has admitted his players would burst out laughing if he told them they were the better team?
These meaningless matches should surely be suspended in World Cup year especially as we are in the ludicrous situation where England and South Africa will meet for real in the vital Pool A match on September 14th and Wales play Australia the following day to decide (in all probability) the winners of Pool B.
Surely it would have been better if these fixtures have to go ahead - so that the southern hemisphere nations turn up in Twickenham and Cardiff a year next November - that Wales were in South Africa and England in Australia. That way psychological damage is minimised and there is a touch more variety.
There is no doubt the South African and Australian public feel short changed with Gareth Jenkins being forced to defend the strength of his selection (very unconvincingly) and the South African press dismissing the England team as 'a gang of part-time plumbers and decorators.'
The Springbok players do not even appear to be taking this very seriously. A.J. Venter is taking the weekend off to get married - that says a great deal when the battle for a starting spot in the back row is hotting up.
I shall be watching, of course, but do I really believe that Wales without Kevin Morgan, Mark Jones, Shane Williams, Tom Shanklin, Dwayne Peel, Gethin Jenkins, Chris Horsman, Alun Wyn Jones, Ian Gough, Ryan Jones, Alix Popham and Martin Williams, more than two thirds of the starting line-up against England, can give Australia a game (all it will do is expose our lack of strength in depth) or that Mark Regan is 'Ready to Rumble' for one last time? (How cheap a cap is that?) Do I hell!
And while the ridiculous charade unfolds in South Africa there are guys like James Haskell, Tom Rees, Paul Sackey and Danny Hipkiss sitting at home just dying for the chance to discover whether they can cut the mustard at international level.
Sure it has been a long season and they were involved in a titanic struggle last weekend but they are young, fit and there is precious little time before the World Cup.
I have never seen such a catalogue of muddled thinking!