Clubs' last bid to avert schism

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The Independent Online
Never in the century since rugby league hived itself off, amid establishment complaints that the "working man" had got himself too involved, has the Rugby Football Union committee in its full majesty needed to make a decision as momentous as that which faces it today.

The emergency meeting called in desperation by Bill Bishop, the RFU president, provides one final opportunity for the union to reach an accommodation with the major clubs of English Professional Rugby Union Clubs about the administration and financing of professional club rugby in England. Otherwise the clubs will collectively secede.

For the first time Epruc will have direct access to the committee and in presenting its case hopes sufficient among the 61 eligible to gather at the London Hilton will be moved to overrule the intractable negotiating position of Cliff Brittle, the RFU executive's chairman and head of the union's team in the talks with the clubs.

Brittle will present the committee with the final negotiating position as determined by his team yesterday. "We have offered them so much," Brittle told BBC radio. "We have offered them a management structure which is light years away from what the RFU would have offered to any of the top clubs even months ago. It accommodates the new professional era."

Epruc has remained steadfastly unimpressed, however. The clubs, while preferring to stay in RFU membership, wish to run their own affairs and use the money generated by their own competitions to fund professionalism, with the RFU still having the bonanza from Twickenham to fund grass-roots development as well as its massive repayments on the ground redevelopment.

"We hope to get a fair hearing from the full committee," Donald Kerr, Epruc's chairman, said last night. "We don't think they have yet had the chance to hear our case in full. At the moment we have been offered less authority than we had under the old National Clubs' Association. In this professional era, that is just not acceptable."

Kerr has even suggested that he and Brittle step aside if that would facilitate a settlement but Brittle is determined to see it through, even though he is well aware of the strength of opposition to him on his own executive and even within the full committee.

"I'm not saying that mistakes haven't been made by everyone over the last few weeks but this has been a stance by Epruc to get me removed because I am the leader of the pack, as it were," Brittle said. "There is no personal agenda in this. There is no way I wish to break up this union. It would be an absolute tragedy if that happened."

Kerr, meanwhile, was last night trying to get away from the contumely that has characterised relations between union and clubs. "We feel we have done all we can to reach agreement," he said. "What it boils down to is our need to have some decision-making power in relation to the professional game. We do not want is control of the game. We are not trying to take over everything."