Rugby Union: Whose game is it anyway?

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The Independent Online
Another week, another round of bloodletting in English rugby union's open civil war. If it wasn't so pathetic it would be funny, writes Chris Hewett

START by taking all the available hypocrisy, chicanery, secrecy and misinformation and mix in some power politics, a pinch of paranoia and a dash of playground petulance. Now add a monster helping of self- importance, season with a few outright lies - great big whoppers of the barefaced variety are very much in season - and hey presto, there you have it: English rugby union, 1998-style. Half Watergate, half Alan Partridge.

Thanks to the chronic mistrust between the major players in the internecine struggle between the professional clubs and their governing body, the standard of debate has been puerile in the extreme. There was an illuminating moment last Monday when Fran Cotton, one of the few central characters in this ongoing pantomime to retain a sense of humour, reacted to allegations by Chris Wright, the millionaire owner of Wasps, that he had been actively luring fresh-faced teenagers away from the contractual clutches of talent- hunting Premiership outfits. "Bloody hell," muttered the Rugby Football Union's vice-chairman. "They've called me a bully, they've accused me of ethnic cleansing and now they want to do me for importuning. Where will it all end?"

Where indeed? This much is certain: there will be no semblance of a conclusion while Cliff Brittle, chairman of the RFU's management board, continues to massage his various obsessions in public. Twice this week, Brittle has given vent to his feelings in the most extraordinary fashion, charging the clubs with all manner of sedition and dirty-trickery before, in the very next instant, brandishing leaked copies of private letters written by his bete noir, Sir John Hall, and boasting of "moles" deep in the heart of the Premiership axis. Openness, honesty and integrity, eh?

Yet if the game is no nearer a solution, the issues have at least been crystallised. Two contrasting ideals stand side by side in the public domain - Cotton's wide-ranging "Club England" document and the owner-investors' "Club Charter" - and while the cynics have been quick to point out that rugby literature now contains more visions than the Old Testament, there is no better catalyst for substantive negotiations than the publication of rival blueprints.

As Cotton agreed during his careful, if ultimately bad-tempered presentation at Twickenham on Thursday, there are a good few acres of common ground between the two camps. Both sides recognise the central importance of the England national team to the well-being of the domestic game, both agree that the Premiership can and should evolve into the strongest professional club structure in world rugby and both acknowledge the urgent need to act on player burn-out, the issue at the heart of Northampton's laughably mishandled attack on this summer's tour of the southern hemisphere. Cotton wants a 35-game limit for the Test elite while the clubs envisage a maximum of 39.

But this deeply damaging argument is not about the what, but the how; both documents contain practical, eminently workable proposals that are pure anathema to those on the opposite side of the great divide and without a grand-scale abandonment of carefully considered operational principles, there is no earthly chance of an accommodation.

The hottest potato in the sack - a planet-sized King Edward, molten to the touch - is the contractual wrangle over Clive Woodward's England squad. Cotton is adamant that the best players should sign with the union - "We can never, ever allow a repeat of the Northampton problem," he growled this week - while the clubs, profoundly embarrassed by the Franklins Gardens fiasco but no less convinced of their claim to the moral high ground, insist on their right to retain the all-important thumbprints, subject to the safeguard of agreed international release periods.

The proof of the pudding will be in the signing, as it were. Although both Brittle and Cotton have denied making any bank-breaking contractual approach to Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain, the club owners, including Dallaglio's employers at Wasps, have dismissed those denials as so much bullshine. Wisely, Dallaglio has maintained an almost regal silence on the subject, but some of his senior international colleagues, notably Jeremy Guscott, have backed the status quo. Cotton has an awful lot of persuading to do if he is to win them over.

Only slightly less important but much more urgent is the collision over Europe. The clubs say next season's Heineken Cup is a financial disaster waiting to happen and want no part of it; Cotton considers it a gem of a competition which, were it to involve rather more English-qualified players, might even persuade him to shelve his long-standing passion for divisional rugby. As things stand, the players will reach the start of next season with two different fixture lists on the table. Chaos, or what?

There are a million and one other points of conflict. Foremost among them are the clubs' declared intention of establishing themselves as an independent body with negotiating rights over broadcasting and sponsorship deals; their proposal to shift the Five Nations' Championship to a new starting date in mid-spring; and Cotton's radical and spectacularly inflammatory franchise plan, which would deny some of the biggest clubs in England a place in their own Premiership.

But the central argument is a philosophical one concerning the precise nature, the very essence, of the game in this country. In a magazine article published this week, Brittle let slip his guard by saying: "The total financial success of the RFU depends on one thing, the success of England. People are not interested in the clubs. What people are interested in is the national team."

If he is right - if domestic rugby is driven by Woodward's team and that alone - Cotton is perfectly justified in his revolutionary replanting of the English rugby landscape.

His ideology has been drawn largely from the orthodoxy currently in vogue in New Zealand, where the All Black jersey carries all before it, the Super 12 provinces are tightly controlled by NZRFU appointees and the National Provincial Championship, the bread and butter domestic competition, grows more marginalised by the day. This year, 95 per cent of the All Black squad will be ordered to rest rather than play in the NPC.

Which is all fine and dandy unless, like thousands of regular rugby supporters from Bath in the South-west to Newcastle in the North-east, you happen to think that the traditional tribalism of English club rugby is something to cherish. Some pounds 30m worth of investment says that Hall, Wright, Nigel Wray, Keith Barwell and their fellow owners believe club rugby to be central to the overall package, not peripheral. If nothing else, they deserve to be treated like grown-ups. Are you listening, Mr Brittle?

What Fran Cotton says

England must play nine or 10 internationals a season, four of them against southern hemisphere superpowers. All tours to be completed by the end of June each summer.

European rugby should eventually be played at provincial rather than club level and culminate in a "world play-off" with the Super 12 champions. Only England-qualified players involved. Management, coaching and selection in the hands of "Club England".

All "elite" performers, from Test players down to under-19 internationals, should be contracted to and managed by "Club England". Leading players should play a maximum 18 club games per season.

Clubs should be "franchised" on a geographical basis for between three and five years. "Club England" players could be seconded to different franchises to ensure regular rugby.

All centrally sourced revenue to be distributed equally across franchised clubs. Across-the-board agreement on player salaries and recruitment.

Establishment of a new "Club England" executive board, running as a limited company owned by the RFU. A performance director to be appointed oversee all national sides.

What the clubs want

England should play seven matches during the domestic season, all of them inside mutually agreed release periods. Autumn internationals on a phased rather than block basis and the Five Nations to be moved to the spring. Tours to be negotiated.

Development of new European competitions, wholly managed by an association of clubs in full control of sponsorship and broadcasting rights. No divisional or provincial rugby.

All players to agree standard contracts with the clubs rather than the union. International release periods for training and matches to be built in on agreement with the England management. Clubs to recommend a maximum number of games for Test players.

A 14-club Premiership starting from next season. One automatic promotion place from Allied Dunbar Premiership Two in 1998-99, with a play-off between the Second Division runners-up and the 13th club in the top flight.

Establishment of the Premiership clubs as an independent organisation operating under RFU auspices. Broadcasting and sponsorship deals to be negotiated by clubs rather than union.

The creation of a Supporters' Charter, including pledges to upgrade facilities and the expansion of links with local schools and junior clubs, phased in on a timetable beginning in 1999-2000.