Brittle braves the battleground

Chris Rea believes that the real conflict is being waged by the television giants
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The Independent Online
IF sport is a reflection of society then clearly there is a chronic shortage of mental hospitals. We have entrepreneurs pouring their millions into club rugby, a fourth division side shelling out pounds 50,000 for a coach and a freak show between Bath and Wigan at Twickenham. Now we learn that there is every prospect of English clubs being invited to participate in the Rugby League Challenge Cup. Brian Moore, meanwhile, blithely talks of six-figure earnings should the clubs break away from the Union.

Am I in cloud-cuckoo land, or are they? Why, suddenly, has club rugby become such hot property when it appears to be of interest to a tiny minority of enthusiasts. In television terms it rates somewhere between gymnastics and synchronised swimming. The weekly viewing figures for BSkyB's admirably committed coverage of club rugby are derisory and the BBC has made it plain over the years that it screens the game at this level under sufferance. It would throw the whole lot overboard tomorrow if it wasn't for the fact that the Five Nations' Championship and sundry other international matches would go with it. The sole reason for Sky's enthusiasm is that it is seen as the sprat to catch the mackerel which they are currently working so hard to land.

While club representatives are holding clandestine meetings and threatening to secede from their unions, the real war is being waged for the game's future in the northern hemisphere on another front. The battle lines have been drawn, with on the one side the Anglo-Welsh alliance and on the other Scotland and Ireland. France, not for the first time in their history, are playing a waiting game.

In simple terms it is the satellites against the terrestrials. Sky's offer in excess of pounds 200m over five years favoured by England and Wales is dependent upon exclusive coverage of domestic and European games and a signature on the dotted line within the next few weeks. In return for this demonstration of faith the unions would receive a substantial payment up front which would be particularly appealing to England, who have a pounds 30m overdraft. It would also satisfy their demand that they should receive a major share of TV revenue. By getting Wales alongside, the RFU had hoped to force Scotland and Ireland into speedy acceptance of the deal.

Talks have already been held between the BBC and Scotland and Ireland and although Auntie is on her knees there is life in the old girl yet. Whether salvation will come in the form of Parliamentary legislation, a subscription channel devoted to sport or a belated change in the corporation's priorities, is at this stage unlikely. But there are opportunities for manoeuvre, not least in the additional value for money which would come from restructuring the Five Nations' Championship and from the proliferation of international touring sides.

Next season there will be no fewer than four countries playing in the UK and Ireland: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Italy. Including the Barbarians and taking into account the possibility that the international championship will be played on Sundays as well as Saturdays, there could be more than double the number of days on which internationals are played. Now that is worth real money. And even the financially pressed BBC might be prepared to rob the piggy bank to acquire it. Their problem, which also applies to ITV, is that whatever they offer, Sky can double it.

If this is ultimately good news for the governing bodies it should be a cause of concern for the clubs. The increase in the number of international matches will inevitably mean a decrease in the amount of competitive club rugby which can be fitted into the schedule. If, to accommodate the national commitments, the number of Courage League matches is reduced, the amount of the sponsorship will also drop which will mean less for the clubs. There is the embryo European competition from which the top clubs can expect substantial revenue and the proposed Anglo-Welsh tournament, but the amounts being discussed are still relatively small. Even pounds 50m doesn't sound all that grand spread over five years and perhaps 24 clubs.

It is this which should be exercising the minds of the English clubs and not the sabre-rattling of the counties and junior clubs at Birmingham last week. Cliff Brittle's overwhelming victory in the election campaign has been seen as a triumph for the Luddites over the progressives but it will make little difference. Had John Jeavons-Fellows been successful he would effectively have been the RFU's chief executive. As it is Brittle will find himself occupying the subtly different role as chairman of the executive committee of 18, most of whom would ferociously resist any attempt to return the game to the counties and to amateurism. If Mr Brittle doesn't come to heel he will find the committee room a very cold and lonely place.

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