Chairman of Wigan charged with fraud

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The Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson, and another director of the club were last night charged with conspiracy to defraud.

Robinson and fellow-director John Martin had been arrested at their homes in the town earlier in the day, and were released on police bail to appear before Wigan Magistrates Court on 8 May. Martin's son-in-law, the Great Britain and Wales prop forward, Neil Cowie, was also arrested and was later released without charge.

The three were questioned for several hours at Wigan police station in connection with allegations made by the Wigan Observer of an attempt to extract money from the paper.

The Observer has alleged that Robinson, a director of the game's most successful club since 1980 and the chairman since 1992, tried to inflate potential libel damages from the paper by suggesting that a transfer deal to take Cowie to Leeds had broken down because of an inaccurate article. Leeds subsequently denied ever having had any intention of signing him.

The paper passed a dossier on the matter to the police last month and inquiries have been taking place since then.

Robinson, a local antiques dealer, has been a key figure in Wigan's rise to a position of unrivalled supremacy in British rugby league. One of the original "Gang of Four" that took over the running of the club 16 years ago, he has sustained the success achieved under Maurice Lindsay since taking over as the club's figurehead four years ago.

There have been recent problems, however, notably when Wigan failed to pass on pounds 100,000 from a Centenary World Cup match to the Rugby Football League, which later fined them pounds 15,000. After the fine ,Wigan's accountant resigned.

The club's problems were compounded when they were beaten in the Silk Cut Challenge Cup, for the first time in nine years, at Salford in February, thus denying them their now customary annual place in the Wembley final.

The weekly Wigan Observer later alleged that a number of Wigan players had spent the build-up to the match drinking heavily on a holiday in Tenerife. The club denied the allegations, pointing out that one of the named players - Cowie - had not even been there.

The paper later received a solicitors' letter giving notice of an intention to seek libel damages. It is those potential damages that are the subject of the current inquiries.

Cowie, aged 29, joined Wigan from Rochdale Hornets in 1991, played for Great Britain in 1993 and for Wales in the Centenary World Cup last year. He had been expected to play for Wigan at St Helens tomorrow.

Cowie's father-in-law, Martin, the owner of the Riverside Club at Central Park, joined the board in 1992.

The arrest of as prominent a figure as Robinson is a major embarrassment for the game in the same week as its leap into the unknown with the start of Super League and summer rugby.

The game's board of directors and its governing body, the Rugby League Council, met at Central Park yesterday, with the allegations against Robinson expected to be on the agenda.

No statement on the Wigan chairman's plight was forthcoming from the League yesterday, nor from the Wigan club itself.