Bishop moves in to start peace talks

Rugby Union
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The peace process in English rugby will begin today when Bill Bishop, president of the Rugby Football Union, moves into the chair to try to resolve the differences between the union and the major clubs threatening to boycott next season's cup and league.

As this comes against the background of BSkyB's individual offers to each of the four home unions for the next television contract, there is suddenly a chance - where up to the weekend there appeared to be none - of both of the game's big disputes being settled.

Last night Gareth Davies, the Cardiff chief executive, speaking for the senior Welsh clubs, urged the Welsh RU to accept Sky's offer, which is thought to total as much as pounds 200m over five years between all the unions.

England have been in danger of expulsion from the Five Nations' Championship for opting out of the joint home union negotiations in pursuit of its own independent TV deal. Sky, meanwhile, is still seeking a terrestrial partner to meet the unions' requirement that rugby coverage does not become a satellite monopoly.

Bishop's appointment as impartial chairman of a slimmed-down club/union negotiating forum is the first sign of progress towards breaking the deadlock over how professional rugby will be administered and financed. Sky has made it clear that its offer will provide clubs with significant monies.

Bishop's mediating presence at today's meeting came about only after the union had again been taken to the brink, first at an acrimonious confidential meeting in London last Thursday involving Donald Kerr and Peter Wheeler from the clubs and Bishop and Cliff Brittle, the RFU executive chairman.

Brittle has been identified by the clubs as the main obstacle to a settlement and the following day members of the executive were considering a vote of censure against Brittle, who would probably then have appealed to the mass of clubs who elected him by calling another special general meeting.

In the end, Bishop's appointment, and with it the effective downgrading of Brittle, who will head a three-man RFU team, changed the executive's minds. Bishop has recognised English Professional Rugby Union Clubs Ltd as representing the 20 First and Second Division clubs - in itself a breakthrough.

"It's not a committee-debatable thing; we've got to have a professional game at the top end and it's our job to get it organised," he said.