Club rebellion grows as English make offer to Scots

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The Independent Online
The stakes are being raised in English rugby's club v union dispute over professionalism with the leading clubs offering vast sums to their Scottish counterparts to join them, and the Rugby Football Union today holding a critical meeting of its despondent executive.

Most executive members are in despair that the dispute with the clubs has been allowed to reach the present impasse, with English Professional Rugby Union Clubs (Epruc) already boycotting next season's cup and league and, on current form, likely by then to have seceded from the union altogether.

Dissatisfaction with the way Cliff Brittle, the executive's chairman, has handled the negotiations on finance and control is rife and this could be the day when, as one member put it this week, "there is blood on the carpet". He added: "There must come a time when those of us who are in despair that we have come to this stand up and be counted, and this could be it.''

Believe it when it happens. The meeting in London's East India Club will have further cause for thought at news from Scotland, where yesterday the First Division clubs called for urgent talks with the Scottish Rugby Union after meeting Donald Kerr of Epruc and Gareth Davies, chief executive of Cardiff, in Edinburgh on Wednesday.

On offer is an annual pounds 500,000 for five years to each of the leading three Scottish clubs to play in a top-tier European competition, with an annual pounds 100,000 each over five years to the remaining five members of the First Division to play in a second European tier.

Melrose, Stirling County and Boroughmuir have been picked out to participate - a choice that has created some embarrassment since it was Watsonians not Boroughmuir who finished third this season. SRU policy, on the other hand, is to enter three district sides in an expanded Heineken Cup.

Next week Kerr will be in Paris to meet French club representatives. With the Welsh clubs having already expressed total support for Epruc's proposed structure, and Epruc almost ready to publish its own fixture lists, the strength of the club rebellion has already grown beyond the RFU's wildest imaginings. Hence the embittered and embattled background to today's executive.

As big a problem is that Brittle was opposed by the executive when he was elected chairman by a general meeting of RFU clubs in January. Covertly at least, he therefore cannot have the confidence of the executive - though he proclaims the unanimous support of his negotiating team, which is something else.

The last time the executive was due to meet, a fortnight ago, at Brittle's behest it became a full committee but in order to try to circumvent Brittle and then achieve some progress with the recalcitrant clubs their request to bring Bill Bishop, the RFU president, into the negotiations was enthusiastically granted.

At this point the RFU under Bishop's auspices, with Brittle in effect marginalised, was ready to settle but in the event no negotiations with Bishop have taken place and it is even suggested that, in order to reassert his position, Brittle has informed Bishop he will not necessarily be permitted to be present if and when they do.

This is a fight for which Bishop has no stomach, and, with this season in its final fortnight, still no one knows what next season holds. Heineken, trying to protect its European Cup investment, has offered various of its premises as venues for conciliation meetings but so far none is planned.

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