Breakaway of major clubs is imminent

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The Independent Online
The long-threatened but never quite believed threat of English rugby's major clubs' seceding from their union has suddenly become so imminent that last night a panic-stricken Rugby Football Union president called an emergency meeting of his full committee for Friday in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the breakaway.

Representatives of English Professional Rugby Union Clubs (Epruc), the clubs' umbrella body, have been invited to attend. Bill Bishop's highly unusual move is all that is left after the failure of his strategy, as independent chairman of the protracted discussions between the clubs and the union's negotiating team, to facilitate a settlement.

Epruc has finally come to the conclusion that however good Bishop's intentions, there will never be agreement as long as Cliff Brittle, the implacable chairman of the RFU executive, heads the union's side of the talks. As recently as last Friday, Epruc believed it was on the verge of settling and had even reached the point of drawing up heads of agreement about who controls professional rugby and receives the finance it generates. The clubs want more of both.

But the prospective deal was blocked and one last meeting was scheduled for this Friday, when instead Epruc will make a presentation to the RFU committee. The Union negotiators will meet tomorrow and intend to make their final position known to the committee on Friday.

Last week, the 20 First and Second Division clubs who make up Epruc had agreed to support the RFU-backed European Cup next season instead of its own alternative, and to fulfil a home-and-away domestic league programme which would circumscribe its proposed Anglo-Welsh competition.

Epruc even appears to have been reluctantly willing to accommodate the RFU's pre-Christmas divisional matches, if only for the time being. But Brittle, fortified by the insistence of his supporters among the counties that there be no concessions on pain of an excruciating third special general meeting, was not prepared to deal. But last night on BBC radio, Brittle said: "We have moved light years towards them, but unfortunately, on the control issue, they have not moved one inch."

No matter what the RFU committee - let alone the executive, on which Brittle has next to no support - may feel, the incontrovertible fact is that he was elected by an overwhelming majority at the first of the three special meetings in preference to the union's own nominee and considers his mandate to come from a constituency of 2,000 and not 20. "The RFU is the governing body of the game in England and as such we cannot relinquish control of the game to any section," Brittle said.

Bishop's latest move came in response to a letter from Donald Kerr, the chairman of Epruc and the new Harlequin FC limited company, informing him that they "had come to the end of the line" and that member clubs were being recommended to leave the RFU. "At a crisis time like this, all the members of the Rugby Union should hear all the facts and come to a decision, because if anything did go badly wrong I might not be forgiven if I had not given people the opportunity to have their say," the president said.

Originally, Bishop wanted a meeting of the executive on Friday and this became the full committee only when he was informed that the right to call executive meetings belonged to Brittle alone. Alas for the president, the most illustrious clubs in England have now lost faith in his capacity to deliver, having initially believed when he was appointed independent chairman that the committee was effectively authorising him to override Brittle. Even the support for the RFU of Richmond - the club of Tony Hallett, the union's secretary - has wavered since they were promoted to the Second Division.

It is now six weeks since Epruc announced the clubs' intention to boycott next season's RFU cup and league competitions, and withdrawal from the union itself was always the next option. "Negotiations have dragged on and on and we feel we have to bring matters to a conclusion," Kerr said. "We need to know where we stand for next season." They already know they have the support of the First Division players in the event of a schism and, crucially, have already established a working relationship with clubs in other countries where the English RFU is more unpopular than it has been in a century.