English rugby's governing body yesterday called the bluff of its leading clubs and, in effect, dared them to carry out their threat - eight months after rugby union went open - of breaking away to form a rival, professional organisation which would pay for itself from the broadcasting and sponsorship of its own rebel competitions.
The Rugby Football Union - in the person of Cliff Brittle, chairman of its executive committee, justifying himself after a week of personalised vilification - dramatically laid down the law at Twickenham by insisting that it would remain in total charge of administering rugby and the monies coming into the game.
The union's attitude of "thus far, no further" also extends to its plans for next season's competitions. Contrary to the stated wish of the clubs, there will be relegation as originally planned from the First Division of the Courage Championship. This means West Hartlepool are already down, with Gloucester or Saracens likely to join them.
Brittle confirmed that this season's first four First Division clubs would be entered into the European Cup, the remaining six into an Anglo- Welsh competition. The clubs had wanted wider European and cross-border involvement and a reduction from 18 to 11 domestic fixtures, with a 12- team First Division playing each other once.
The union's determination to maintain an intermediate representative level between club and country means there will still be divisional rugby - although not a Divisional Championship - next autumn when London, the Midlands, North and South-West will play Argentina, the Junior Springboks and Queensland.
All of this is anathema to the clubs, who want to run and finance themselves and now have to put up or shut up. There will be no formal response until after a meeting tomorrow, but last night a spokesman for English Professional Rugby Clubs, the umbrella body for the First and Second Divisions, said: "Given the complete lack of willingness beforehand by Brittle to negotiate it was entirely expected. He is playing a very dangerous game."
One club official says plans for competitions supported by television are in place, to be disclosed as soon as a breakaway is declared. Yesterday the RFU insisted that all broadcasters had pledged to deal only with it, but either way there is great scepticism at Twickenham that clubs will be able to afford the contracts to which they are already committing themselves.
"We are talking about the soul of the game," Malcolm Phillips, a former England centre from Lancashire who sits with Brittle on the RFU's negotiating panel, said yesterday. "If we get this one wrong, we are into some pretty horrid scenarios. In soccer the clubs dictate to the union. In rugby league they can't meet their wage bills so they sell out to Murdoch.
"They are two scenarios that could befall us if we are not careful. Neither the union nor the clubs have the money to fund the open game at the moment. People are making promises they cannot keep and people are going to suffer. The players will suffer from broken contracts. The clubs will go bust."
The clubs' alternative view is that the means of avoiding such an eventuality is for them autonomously to control their own destiny. But any RFU sympathy for this view evaporated when Sir John Hall of Newcastle United - and latterly Newcastle RFC - suggested that the England team would be no more than an optional extra under the new dispensation.
"We are welcoming some wealthy individuals into the game who are used to getting their own way and whose motivations and experience in this game are not the same as ours," Brittle said. To which Don Rutherford, the Geordie who has been the RFU's technical director for 26 years, added: "The arrival of a new man on the block with charismatic qualities seems to have confused the minds of many League One and Two club officials.
"The newcomer is Sir John Hall and I suppose it is inevitable that he should wish to compare rugby with soccer; the latter is his main sporting experience. This is a dangerous assumption as England soccer is ranked 23 in the world while England rugby is in the top four."
The gap seems unbridgable. "We've tried for the last three months to be in a placatory negotiating situation with the ," Mike Coley, Gloucester's chief executive, said yesterday. "They have totally ignored the majority of what we've been trying to do and have come up and said: `We're in charge, do as you're told.'
"It is only right that we have the television rights and sponsorship monies from those competitions in which we play. If we are going to have a professional game we have to have the money to pay the professional game. No club in England has that money without the television rights and sponsorship."
Game on the brink, page 23
The Twickenham battle lines
English Professional Clubs (EPRUC) have submitted 12 draft principles to the Rugby Football Union. Yesterday, the RFU announced an outright refusal to negotiate on three.
1 That all monies raised from competitions be paid to participating clubs.
2 That payments to representative players be made through EPRUC.
3 That an independent body be established to run the professional game.
The RFU yesterday announced it would negotiate on eight of the remaining nine points, the ninth being to note that the "golden" share in EPRUC originally offered to the RFU had been reduced to a non-voting share.
1 Distribution of TV rights and sponsorship.
2 A success fee for clubs participating in knock-out competitions.
3 Conditions to be placed by the union on relevant monies raised.
4 Explore together one contract for players with the union retaining primacy of availability for representative rugby.
5 Playing of major games at Twickenham, but without automatic right of access.
6 Reorganisation and reform of the RFU so as to administer an open/professional game.
7 A structured season having regard to international and representative games.
8 Explore the possibility of renegotiating sponsorship agreements as and when existing contracts allow.Reuse content