England squad won't play ball

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The Independent Online
The battle for control of English rugby union took a significant turn last night when current members of the England squad made themselves unavailable for selection to play in the national team.

The players gave their firm backing to English Professional Rugby Union Clubs (Epruc), the association which represents all the country's leading clubs and which is locked in a dispute with the Rugby Football Union, the English game's governing body. Epruc wants to control competitions involving its own clubs and is threatening to break away from the RFU.

The players' decision means they are now unavailable for England selection, as they will be contracted to their clubs, which will not release them for international training sessions or matches.

The national team is run by the RFU, which has just reached agreement with the other countries over the staging of the annual Five Nations' Championship following a separate dispute over the RFU's decision to sell its television rights to Sky.

The RFU said it was "disappointed that the players have been brought into this dispute" and said it remained committed to finding "an equitable solution for all". It revealed on Thursday that it was offering contracts of up to pounds 70,000 to members of the England squad. It was unclear last night whether Epruc had made a counter-offer to those players.

As the situation now stands, the most famous names in English rugby - the likes of Will Carling, Jeremy Guscott and Dean Richards - will be unavailable to play for England, who would have to take the field with a team of players unknown to the vast majority of the sporting public.

However, Epruc is confident it could organise an alternative international tournament, as clubs and players from the other home nations may now follow their English counterparts in breaking away from their national ruling bodies.

Such a tournament could not be played at traditional rugby venues such as Twickenham or Murrayfield but it is unlikely there would be any difficulty hiring stadiums like Wembley or Hampden Park.

Donald Kerr, Epruc chairman, said: "The ball is in the RFU's court ... There is no point in negotiating further; we've been doing that for nine months."