Clubs to meet on Murdoch's offer

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The Independent Online
The chairmen of Britain's rugby league clubs will meet in Wigan tomorrow morning entrusted with making the most far-reaching decision in the 100- year history of the game.

In a nutshell, they must decide, then or later, whether to take £30m from News Ltd in return for turning the game upside down or whether they will tell Rupert Murdoch "thanks, but no thanks".

There is little doubt which way that decision will go. On the one hand, the vast majority of clubs who are struggling to make ends meet are inevitably impressed by the amount of money on offer - a sum which is thought to cover the first two years of a Euro-League played in the summer, with money also for the clubs outside that lite level. There would be more to come over the lifetime of a contract which could run for five or seven years.

At the successful end of the spectrum, the Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson, was visibly excited by the prospect of taking part in Murdoch's projected lite competition. "Wigan's viewpoint is that this is something that could be fantastic for the future of the game," he said.

"It could be the kick-start rugby league has needed for years. It's amazing that something like this crops up in the sport's centenary year. We have been cruising for 100 years; maybe now we'll start motoring.''

Robinson's enthusiasm was echoed by the Wigan coach, Graeme West. "I've always been in favour of playing fewer games and playing in the summer," he said. "Properly marketed, it could be a huge success.''

It was left to the other giants of the English game, Leeds, to strike the necessary note of caution and scepticism. "We can't rush into something like this without considering its effects on all aspect of the game," their chief executive, Alf Davies, said.

Leeds will be arguing against making any binding decision tomorrow. Long- time opponents of a switch to summer rugby, Leeds could be persuaded to change their stance on that, Davies said, but only if they were convinced that the Murdoch deal was good enough in the long term. "It is too soon to make a decision. Chairmen need to come back and talk to their boards," he said. "We are dealing with people here that we have to be mighty careful about.''

There was embarrassment yesterday over claims from Murdoch's No 2, Ken Cowley, that the British game had already agreed to come aboard. The chairman of the Australian Rugby League, Ken Arthurson, appeared on Australian television last night brandishing a fax from the British League assuring him that no decision has been made.

But the tide is flowing against Arthurson. Attempts to persuade the Test scrum-half Ricky Stuart to renege on his Murdoch contract and, hopefully, start a domino effect of players returning to the fold have failed and even new clubs like Auckland and the Western Reds, who owe their very existence to the ARL, are moving in Murdoch's direction.

Murdoch appears to have what he needs to start his Star League in the southern hemisphere, although probably not until 1997. That would give the same length of time for the European operation to be set up, probably with the Rugby League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, at its head and, in an appointment that hints at one projected source of players, Mike Burton as its recruitment officer.

Detailed proposals will be unveiled by Lindsay tomorrow following his discussions with another Murdoch henchman, Sam Chisholm, yesterday. One cause for concern already is the effect that the Australian schism will have on this October's Centenary World Cup. The row over who represents Australia, the establishment or the upstarts, could wreck what should be the game's biggest celebration.

n Kelvin Skerrett picked up a three-match ban yesterday but will be free to play for Wigan in the Challenge Cup final against Leeds at Wembley on 29 April. The Great Britain prop was reported in last Sunday's match against Halifax for using his elbow.

Changing face of sport, page 38