Clubs win battle of Brittle to avert split

Rugby Union

English rugby union last night pulled back from the brink when a tortuous day of negotiations culminated in a settlement between the Rugby Football Union and the First and Second Division clubs who had been threatening to secede. At the 11th hour the clubs have ended up with virtually everything they wanted.

Agreement was achieved only when the full committee of the RFU, called to an emergency meeting in London, effectively circumvented the head of their own negotiating team, Cliff Brittle, by accepting that the clubs in membership of English Professional Rugby Union Clubs would have control of, and the proceeds from, the competitions in which they participate so as to help finance the new professional club game.

The clubs will henceforth be represented in, and be signatories to, all television and sponsorship negotiations. "We will be joint signatories to those agreements and the money will come to the clubs," Donald Kerr, the Epruc chairman, said. "It will get professional club rugby off the ground with a major source of income for us and a recognition that we are finally moving into professional club rugby.''

The clubs have formally agreed to remain within the RFU, to play in all RFU domestic and other competitions, and to recognise the primacy of England and representative rugby within player contracts - though, critically, these will be held by the clubs and not the union.

The contention may not quite be ended, because the union had already been warned that if it acceded to the clubs' demands an attempt would be made by the English Rugby Counties' Association - an important Brittle supporter when he was elected chairman of the RFU's executive committee at a special general meeting in August - to overturn the agreement at another special meeting.

However, Brittle indicated that the deal would satisfy the grass roots no less than the senior clubs, so did not anticipate a counter-revolution. Whether that eventuates remains to be seen. When yesterday's proceedings finally ended Brittle took his place at the table along with those who have been his sworn enemies when the announcement was made.

In the end Epruc got more or less what it had wanted, including a First Division of 12 clubs for one season only in 1996-97. Saracens and West Hartlepool are thereby spared relegation. The union and Epruc will now draw up a contract under which the clubs will in effect run their own affairs while remaining in the RFU.

The ending was fittingly protracted given the months of fruitless and occasionally ill-natured talks that had led Epruc as recently as Tuesday to recommend that its members set up on their own. Yesterday morning the committee for the first time received a presentation directly from Epruc, followed by a report from Brittle of the final position worked out by his negotiating team at an eight-hour meeting on Thursday night.

It then took all afternoon and into the evening for a detailed resolution to be drawn up - which was then sent for amendment to Epruc representatives. "We are very happy with this agreement," Brittle said. "There are no winners or losers. The game is the winner." Which was not something that could fairly be said during these recent months.

Brittle insisted neither he nor the RFU had backed down but clearly something happened yesterday and afterwards Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Leicester, was clear that the clubs had had the majority of their case upheld, albeit while staying under Twickenham's auspices.

"What the clubs have decided is that basically the Rugby Football Union will govern the game in England and they will take part in competitions we govern," Brittle added. "There has been a meeting of minds." This is a remarkable reflection on the successful outcome from a man who has consistently been painted by Epruc as the biggest single obstacle to a resolution.

The way is now at last clear for the clubs to get on with the difficult business of signing up their players. "What has happened has given the clubs the basis on which they can move into a professional club era," Wheeler said. "We all know roughly what sort of money is about and we can now enter into the contracts we need with our players.''

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