A jubilant BBC announced yesterday that it had paid in ``excess of pounds 40m'' to the national rugby unions of Scotland, Wales and Ireland to keep possession of live Five Nations rugby coverage in the Celtic Fringe.
England, who notoriously negotiated the unilateral deal with BSkyB and nearly found themselves excommunicated from the Five Nations as a result, are now in the peculiar position of playing their home matches in front of a far smaller television audience than their Celtic brethren.
Rupert Murdoch's satellite giant has given up on its goal of the broadcasting equivalent of the Grand Slam.
BSkyB had originally put more than pounds 200m on the table in a bid to win the entire Five Nations rights, but it withdrew recently after disagreements over dual tendering with a terrestrial partner.
The bulk of live Five Nations action - a minimum of 18 matches - plus 14 other ties involving the three countries against major touring teams will remain ``free to air'' for the next three seasons.
Announcing the deal yesterday, Jonathan Martin, BBC controller of television sport, said: "We are delighted that the national rugby unions involved took a considered view of the potential audiences for these important matches and have chosen to make them available to the whole United Kingdom viewing public."
The news will be welcomed by club sides from Swansea to Stirling County and from Bridgend to Ballymena. Welsh clubs - some of which have run into acute financial difficulties in recent months - had double cause for celebration yesterday when a separate domestic deal was struck with HTV and the Welsh language station S4C.
Syd Millar, Irish Rugby Football Union representative on the Five Nations television commit-tee, spoke for many armchair fans on both sides of the Irish Sea last night when he said: "This contract keeps faith with the vast majority of rugby supporters. It is also an excellent contract commercially."
Charlie Bissett, Scottish Rugby Union's Five Nations television sub-committee represent- ative, said the outcome of negotiations with the BBC had provided "an optimal answer to our twin objectives of maximising coverage of the game, combined with our desire to achieve the greatest possible return for our television rights."
Tom Kiernan, the Five Nations Committee chairman, said these had been the two prime principles in their negotiations with the BBC.
"The deal with the BBC has safeguarded these principles," he said.
"We are delighted with it and look forward to a period of stability and prosperity in Five Nations rugby."
The Five Nations championship almost fell apart last summer when the English Rugby Union unilaterally negotiated a deal with BSkyB for live coverage of matches played at Twickenham.
England was temporarily kicked out of the tournament until it agreed to contribute pounds 65m into a communal pot.
The coverage of French matches in Paris will remain subject to separate negotiations with the French Rugby Federation.
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