With barely three weeks of this season remaining, English rugby's leading clubs yesterday commenced divorce proceedings from the Rugby Football Union.
Irreconcilable differences over the administration and financing of the new professional game have caused them to announce their withdrawal from next season's RFU league and cup competitions to play in their own.
In desperation the clubs - the 20 in the First and Second Divisions who constitute English Professional Clubs - have thrown themselves on the good offices of the RFU president, Bill Bishop, as the only mediator now capable of effecting a mutually acceptable resolution.
The clubs want to run autonomously and receive directly the income generated by their competitions, which have a significantly different format from those announced by the RFU on Tuesday.
As things stand, the clubs and the union each say they are the only ones to have compromised during three months of increasingly fraught discussions.
"Even at this late hour we believe that a compromise solution must be reached with the RFU, otherwise there will be a split in the sport for which the RFU will be held responsible."
Donald Kerr of Harlequins, the EPRUC chairman, said in concluding a lengthy statement: "We are therefore appealing to the president to step in and use his authority to find a way forward before there is an irrevocable break between the clubs and union." Accordingly, Kerr yesterday wrote to Bishop to this end. "I have had conversations with Bill Bishop and I am hopeful that he will progress matters as we hope," Kerr added.
A clubs' plan is already in place for a two-tier European competition, a domestic league to be known as the English Conference and an Anglo-Welsh competition comprising a full 24 clubs. In straight contradiction of the RFU, EPRUC says it has broadcasters and sponsors ready to step in with the pounds 1m they each require to fund professionalism next season.
Meanwhile, the clubs also formally expressed their anger at and inability to deal with Cliff Brittle, chairman of the RFU executive, and have grown so hostile to him that any reconciliation will remain virtually impossible as long as he heads the union's negotiating team.
Yet as recently as Tuesday Brittle, who was elected by the RFU grassroots in January in the face of the executives' unanimous opposition, absolutely refused to step aside and repeatedly insisted he had the RFU negotiators' full support. And last night Brittle was just as firm. "The RFU must maintain overall control of the game in the interests of all its members," he said.
It was the clubs' infuriated response to Tuesday's implacable RFU position as articulated by Brittle that caused them to hold yesterday's EPRUC board meeting in London. For now they remain members of the union and will join about half of the membership in staying outside the official competitive structure.
Crucially, the clubs say they have the support of the leading players, but we can now expect an auction with the union for their services, since those who opt out of the Courage Championship could hardly be expected to be considered favourably for England. Jack Rowell, the England manager, could be excused for being in despair.
EPRUC also claimed to have the full support of their Welsh counterparts - and even of the Welsh , which is supposedly not interested in the Anglo-Welsh competition laid down by the RFU.
Finally, they have an important body of support among the RFU executive members whom Brittle chairs and are now relying on their influence being exercised in support of Bishop and a settlement.
Brittle's mandate comes from the mass of small clubs who voted for him against the RFU committee's own nominee three months ago. This explains why the RFU has become so adamant in its refusal to cede the slightest authority. Brittle is clearly charged with preventing a few clubs hijacking the union.
"It's obvious it's an amateur organisation running a body for amateur clubs," Peter Wheeler, Leicester's chief executive and an EPRUC spokesman, said yesterday. "But we are not amateur clubs any more. The have made it clear they haven't got any more money to fund the professional game than they had last year."
The crux of the problem has become apparent: EPRUC believes the RFU to be neither able - because of the pounds 35m debt created by re-building Twickenham - nor willing to generate funds needed to pay for the professionalism the RFU's own representatives accepted at the International Board last August.
The ball is now back in the union's, or at any rate Bill Bishop's court. "We all realise that together we must be stronger than if we are apart," Wheeler said. "We are moving to the point where we are staring down the barrel - and at that point common sense has to prevail." The trouble is one man's common sense is another's nonsense.
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