Clubs slide closer to schism

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union The split no one wants is widening between the Rugby Football Union and England's top clubs. With just 32 days remaining before the moratorium on professionalism is lifted on 6 May the two sides are no nearer agreement. The mood in the clubs' camp has swung from disappointment to anger in the last two weeks.

That anger could manifest itself in the long-threatened breakaway, even though the top clubs' official body, English First Division Rugby Limited and their Second Division equivalent insist that is not at all what they want. "There is no way we want to break away," says the EFDR chairman, Donald Kerr. "We are trying to be constructive, trying to be realistic. The breakdown of discussions concerns us much more than a possible breakaway."

Newcastle's chairman, Sir John Hall, is confident there will be no breakaway. "Common sense will prevail if everybody cares for rugby, as they say they do," he said.

But EFDR were angered by the RFU's executive committee chairman, Cliff Brittle, insisting that Twickenham retains full control of running the game, including television negotiations.

The soul of rugby was not for sale, Brittle insisted at the weekend, when the senior clubs from the First and Second Divisions boycotted the last round of talks.

The clubs maintain that by going forward together they will have a far stronger hand when it comes to negotiating broadcasting rights. Sir John does not want rugby to undersell itself. He heads the Second Division clubs' body and having had experience of the teething troubles when football set up its Premiership - which rugby is adopting as a blueprint - he does not want rugby to make the same mistakes.

Unfortunately the only talks planned for the moment are informal, again not what the clubs want. They are in a position of strength having already set up an administrative structure, European Rugby Clubs Ltd, which encompasses the Five Nations as well as Italy. And if agreement cannot be reached in time then English Professional Rugby Union Clubs Ltd, who represent the First and Second Division members would reluctantly go ahead and negotiate their own sponsorship and television deals for a playing structure which would guarantee clubs the necessary 15 or 16 home matches they need to support wage-bills ranging from pounds 750,000 to pounds 1.5m.

That of course would mean that all the top players would have commitments elsewhere leaving the RFU without any assets, since, as the clubs point out, the Five Nations' Championship is the chief source of Twickenham's revenues, and without the big-name players there would be little to tempt the television companies and sponsors. As one EPRUC official put it recently, "We have a loaded gun, but we do not want to pull the trigger."

There is definitely a gun being held at the head of the game, the question is, whose hand is on it?