Bishop checks the stalemate

Chris Hewett talks to the RFU's diplomat on a year of living dangerousl y
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WHAT a difference a year makes in the vexed and vitriolic world of new-age rugby union. Twelve months ago, the "old farts" of officialdom felt secure enough to dish out summary justice to the biggest name in the English game and sack Will Carling as national captain. Today, the boot is on the other foot.

Far from playing the dictator, as his predecessor, Dennis Easby, did last May, Rugby Football Union president Bill Bishop has spent the last three weeks walking a diplomatic tightrope as honest broker between his own august body and the hard-line rebels from the senior clubs. If, as now seems likely, the popular Cornishman has managed to knock one or two heads gently together, he will deserve every handshake he receives when his term of office ends in July.

Although Bishop is too discreet to say so, the potential for a lasting agreement on the shape of the domestic game is greater now than at any point in the last five bitterly antagonistic months.

"A number of the barriers have come down, the threat of a breakaway by the clubs has receded and we can expect some rapid movement towards a solution," the RFU secretary Tony Hallett said, no doubt grateful for the fulsome backing he received last week from Bishop.

But it is ironic that the game Bishop fell in love with as a boy was effectively buried today. The RFU's one-season moratorium on professionalism expired after yesterday's cup final, and contracts and win bonuses will now replace the old school tie as rugby's official currency. It is not a prospect Bishop relishes, but he understands the realities.

"Rugby will never be the same again," he said during a break from yet another meeting at Twickenham. "All I hope is the situation in England settles down, we get the European and cross-border competitions up and running without any more delay, and we start concentrating on events on the pitch rather than in the committee room.

"I don't mind saying that it's been a rough year. I always knew it would be difficult because of the anticipated easing of the amateur regulations, but I don't think anyone foresaw such a sudden and complete abolition of them; the International Board's decision plunged us into a tremendous vacuum and it has been the devil's own job to get back out of it. Like any dangerous situation, there has been a certain excitement about being president this year. But it has not been without personal cost. I've taken a fair old battering these past few months - in fact, I still am - and I can honestly say that had I been shown the job description beforehand, I would never have taken it on.

"As well as performing all the usual duties of an RFU president - within a few weeks of taking over I had a season's worth of dinners and meetings in my diary - I had to cope with the tragically early death of Peter Bromage, who passed away five days after starting work as our executive chairman. I chaired the committee myself for the six or seven months before Cliff Brittle's election. You wouldn't catch a company director doing what I've done since last summer."

While Bishop accepts there is still plenty of hard talking to be done, he hopes to capitalise on the breakthrough achieved at last Wednesday's meeting with delegates from the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs, the organisation representing the cash-hungry big guns. It was a meeting as notable for its absentees as its conciliatory atmos-phere; the strong- minded Brittle, bogeyman-in-chief in the eyes of the clubs, was missing.

"I don't make any great claims for myself as a negotiator, but I regard myself as honest and open, and I don't have any hidden agendas," said Bishop. "I'm simply doing my best to sort this thing out, and if that proves not to be good enough, so be it. The current difficulties can definitely be resolved satisfactorily for the good of the game. We must do everything we can to keep the clubs within the RFU, and we made a good deal of progress towards that end last Wednesday.We're all working under tremendous pressure and I can understand the concerns expressed by players up and down the country. They're worried about their future, and rightly so. Instability can be extremely damaging, so the onus is on us to get this sorted as a matter of urgency."

The extent to which Bishop is prepared to strive for the cause was recognised by the full RFU committee last week in a statement which read: "We congratulate Bill Bishop on the progress made in his discussions with Epruc, in particular in the combined confirmation that the senior clubs wish to remain in the RFU." Not many company directors receive such an accolade.