Rugby Union: England men told to ignore `threat'

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ENGLAND'S mutinous Premiership clubs took a deep breath, pressed the pause button and postponed an outright declaration of rugby revolution yesterday, but the whiff of sedition still hung heavy over Fran Cotton, Clive Woodward and the rest of the Twickenham establishment. Unless a startling diplomatic initiative gathers mo- mentum over the weekend - and diplomats are thin on the ground in the domestic game these days - the balloon will go up sooner rather than later.

The club owners met under the auspices of their umbrella organisation, English First Division Rugby, in London yesterday to discuss the ramifications of Northampton's decision to bar their Test contingent from joining this summer's England tour of the southern hemisphere and Woodward's subsequent address to his squad, which was based squarely on the "sign up or get lost" principle. After three hours of talks, the delegates emerged with a blast of righteous anger, a raft of veiled threats and a demand that the national coach withdraw his "unnecessary and provocative" ultimatum.

Woodward told the England players that failure to declare themselves available for the four-Test trip to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in June and July would compromise their chances of appearing in the forthcoming Five Nations' matches with Scotland and Ireland. If his words angered some of the more militant members of his squad, they rendered the clubs apoplectic. Yesterday, they took up the cudgels with a vengeance.

"We will be advising our players not to respond to this threat," said the clubs in an EFDR statement. "We fully support the action taken by Northampton whereby their players will not be touring this summer, but instead will enjoy a two-month rest at the end of the season. While we confirm our ongoing support for international rugby and our intention to continue honouring all international release periods for the current Five Nations tournament, we also agree that, in the interests of the players' welfare, the Rugby Football Union should reconsider the southern hemisphere tour. The clubs are consulting with their players to explain their decision not to support any tour this summer."

Donald Kerr, chairman of EFDR, stressed that because of contractual small print, most clubs were not in a position to force their players to abandon the tour. Only Northampton and Saracens have the final call on their employees, and while Saints have made their position clear, Nigel Wray, the Saracens owner, has decided against pulling rank. However, Keith Barwell, Northampton's owner, appears to have obtained the support of his boardroom colleagues.

"More than anything, we are concerned about the welfare of all players, and with the demands placed on internationals," said Doug Ash, the EFDR chief executive. "A number of players require operations this summer and we know that Fran and Clive feel that they have inherited a tour that is basically a tour too many. We believe a summer's rest to be the best preparation for England players endeavouring to win the World Cup in 1999."

Woodward has acknowledged that the summer schedule, which not only features two Tests with the All Blacks but also games against the New Zealand Maoris and New Zealand A, is far from ideal. "Had I been England coach when the itinerary was being put together, it would have looked a whole lot different," he agreed earlier in the week.

On the face of it, then, there is room for manoeuvre, especially as Kerr hinted last night that his organisation would be happy to accept a two- Test programme.The two sides are so entrenched after months of mutual mistrust and political shadow boxing that it is inconceivable that the RFU will approach the southern hemisphere unions and request amore player- friendly schedule.