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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 07:59 GMT
Connolly's parting message
By Mark Orlovac

John Connolly
Ex-Bath coach John Connolly says the spectre of Premiership relegation is partly responsible for England's lack of creativity at international level.

The Australian reckons the conservative approach adopted by many clubs is why England's backs lack a cutting edge.

"There is no doubt that teams would be more expansive if there was no relegation," Connolly told BBC Sport.

"Fear of losing is massive. Relegation affects the style of game you play, there is so much at stake."

England enjoyed a positive November, beating both Australia and Samoa as well as losing narrowly to New Zealand.

But their backs looked predictable and ponderous at times.

And Connolly agrees with All Blacks coach Graham Henry and Newcastle rugby director Rob Andrew, who claim that the forward-dominated nature of the Premiership is to blame.

"London Irish have a massive forward pack, don't move the ball wide of inside centre and they kick a lot," he explained.

"Saracens also have a big pack and kick to the corners and put the pressure on.

England hooker Steve Thompson gets to grips with the Samoan pack last Saturday
England's pack came to the fore during the autumn internationals

"I understand that, teams just have to win. But if there was no relegation then it would free things up."

Connolly returns home to Australia this week after a successful, two-and-a-half year stint in England which saw him guide Bath from the brink of relegation to the top of the Premiership.

And the 54-year-old former Queensland and Stade Francais coach believes there must be a complete restructure of the season if the game in this country is to continue flourishing.

He recommends:

  • Making the Powergen Cup a pre-season event;

  • Limiting the top international players to 30 games per season;

  • Larger squads for Premiership clubs;

  • Compensation in the salary cap for clubs that commit players to England.

    "Moving the Powergen Cup to pre-season would enable England players to have a good rest because they would not have to play in it," said Connolly.

    "The average English player that tours in June is under pressure from his club to come back straight away but this way they could get their two to three months off."

    According to Connolly, the move would also help sides that contribute players to the international team.

    That is because the Premiership fixture list could be rejigged so less league games clash with international weekends.

    "There are only four or five clubs providing all the players for England and that is not in anyone's interest," said Connolly.

    "We are delighted to have players in the England squad but the downside is that when you hit November you are disadvantaged terribly.

    "There are four or five clubs that don't sign people who are going to play international rugby. I can understand that.

    I have had a wonderful time and it is very hard to leave Bath
    John Connolly

    "With relegation involved, one slip you can be out of the door. Having players unavailable for so much of the season has huge ramifications."

    Connolly also says the ongoing conflict between the clubs and the Rugby Football Union has to be resolved if England are to repeat the World Cup final glory of 2003.

    The two parties are locked in a long-running dispute over training access to England players.

    "Lessons could be learnt from when England won the World Cup in 2003," said Connolly. "There was a great preparation for England and we saw the result of it.

    "Balancing England's ambitions with the lifeblood of the game - the clubs and the supporters - is the challenge.

    "Both parties have to give a bit and respect the other in terms what they are trying to achieve.

    "After all, they are trying to achieve the same thing, which is better rugby players and an England win at the next World Cup."

    Connolly, who is being replaced by Brian Ashton at Bath, is looking forward to a break after almost 20 years in the game, although he has not ruled out a return to England in the future.

    "I have had a wonderful time and it is very hard to leave Bath," he said.

    "But I have spent over five years in Europe and it is time to have a break. It is not about going anywhere else.

    "There are no plans just yet, nothing is ruled out or ruled in."

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