Rugby Union: Clubs agree deal with RFU

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The Independent Online
AT LONG last, a vote for common sense. England's warring factions kissed and made up yesterday after two long years of bloody civil conflict and although a handful of hard-line extremists will undoubtedly head for the mountains to plot their revenge, the domestic game can finally start celebrating peace in its time.

Both the Rugby Football Union council and its management board gave overwhelming support to a wide-ranging, seven-year agreement hammered out by the rival negotiating teams led by Graham Smith, the RFU member for Kent, and Tom Walkinshaw, the Formula One team owner who has a majority share in Gloucester.

"The deal underpins the efforts of the England team while recognising the club-based nature of rugby in this country," said Smith. "We went in with a positive attitude and while it's fair to say that we've had our moments of discord, we've come out with a positive agreement."

As expected, England's Premiership clubs will boycott next year's Heineken Cup. The Allied Dunbar top flight will accommodate 14 teams next season and professional players will operate under standard contracts featuring built-in release dates for international rugby - a move certain to infuriate Cliff Brittle, the marginalised RFU chairman, and his major ally, Fran Cotton, who has already set the wheels in motion for a special general meeting in the summer.

Cotton will be positively apoplectic at the RFU's decision to turn its back on provincial rugby, the resurrection of which he has turned into a crusade. He will almost certainly claim that the clubs have won to the detriment of rugby worldwide.

However, the clubs have made significant concessions on key issues. Full England players - that is to say, those involved in Test squads - will play no more than 37 games a season and to that end, Premiership rugby will be played on or around international weekends. Never before have the clubs accepted the principle of playing important games without their leading lights.

"We've also ensured that there will be no Premiership closed shop; there will always be promotion and relegation," said Smith, whose quiet and restrained approach made him a key figure in the wheeling and dealing. Next season, Bedford and West Hartlepool will join the elite while London Scottish and Rotherham will accompany them if they triumph in their respective play-off matches with Bristol and London Irish.

Crucially, the clubs have agreed to make the deal unchallengeable for seven years. Even if the European Commission comes down in favour of the clubs' application on constitutional and commercial rights this autumn, its findings will not be brought to bear on the running of the domestic game.

Smith and his colleagues must now sell the deal to a hostile and reactionary International Rugby Board in Dublin on 18 May. Until then, the 12 clubs who make up the existing Premiership top flight remain banned, albeit controversially, from playing contact with any side outside of England.

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