Clubs ready for a new showdown

Rugby Union

England's senior clubs are digging in for yet another round of trench warfare with their governing body, this time over the Rugby Football Union's decision to change the promotion and relegation rules between the top two divisions of the Courage League. The fact that a final accord between the two sides on the main political issues arising from professionalism is now at an advanced stage of legal refinement makes the latest outbreak of hostilities doubly ironic.

All 12 current first division clubs and a number of their colleagues in Courage League Two are objecting forcibly to last weekend's surprise RFU move to a four-down, two-up arrangement - the second season in succession that the goalposts have been shifted midway through a campaign. The original plan, also designed with a 10-team top flight in mind, had been based on a three-down, one-up system complete with play-offs.

With two of English rugby's traditional powers, Bristol and Gloucester, now in unexpected strife, the first division clubs are pressing for the 12-team top flight to be maintained - a means of restricting relegation to the bottom two in the table rather than the bottom third. "We've written to Twickenham to that effect and we're serious about it," said David Tyler, the Bristol general manager. "The decision taken by the competitions' sub-committee of the RFU at the end of last week came out of the blue. It was a bombshell. We're standing up for principles here; the RFU are preaching reconciliation and togetherness on the one hand while on the other, they are making moves like this without the slightest attempt at consultation with the very clubs affected."

The RFU have been lobbied by some of the richer second division clubs, notably Richmond, for two guaranteed promotion places. They are unlikely to want to switch back again - the need to save face was a contributing factor in prolonging this year's conflict over financial management and control of broadcasting rights - but the timing of last weekend's announcement has infuriated the clubs every bit as much as the content.

As usual in the brave new world of professional rugby, the issues under debate get more complex at every turn. Lurking beneath the row over relegation is the Welsh lobby, which wants to see a dramatic expansion of continental competition next season. Clubs like Cardiff are keen to play the Heineken European Cup on a home-and-away basis, a move that would commit the most successful sides to between 16-20 matches.

"In my opinion, the European competitions are just about right as they are," said Tyler. "We could expand them slightly and still maintain a 12-team domestic league, but any move to double the amount of matches would clearly be incompatible."

n Moseley, of the second division, look like escaping punishment for playing an unregistered player, Andy Freke, in last month's defeat at Bedford. The League organisers have said they do not intend punishing them for a genuine mistake.

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