Coley calls for age of reason

'Those clubs with wealthy benefactors will just snaffle everything that's going and the rest of the game will fall apart'; Alex Spink talks to Gloucester's chief about fears of an elite breakaway
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The Independent Online
AT Gloucester this Wednesday, an estimated crowd of 11,000 will pack Kingsholm to watch the home side take on Bath in a rearranged Courage League One fixture. It could be the last meeting of the West Country giants under the auspices of the Rugby Football Union.

Four weeks tomorrow, the RFU moratorium is lifted; professional rugby union arrives and with it the increased costs of turning out a team that remains competitive. Gloucester, without a sugar-daddy or a corporate sponsor contributing hundreds of thousands of pounds, need fresh finance to compete with those who do and are at the fulcrum of an argument with the RFU that could lead to an irreparable schism between the leading clubs and the ruling body. They, along with the other elite clubs, want to pocket the money that the new tournaments (European Cup, Anglo-Welsh league) and attendant television deals will produce. The establishment fear that if they agree to this, their very authority will be surrendered.

No firm decisions have yet been reached about the sport's future; indeed it has not even been decided whether there will be relegation from League One this year. Little wonder that Gloucester, perched precariously above the trap-door, are fuming. Their chief executive, Mike Coley, a former RFU man, cannot believe the performance of his former employers. "The RFU method of running things at the moment leaves an awful lot to be desired," he said. "It's an appalling advertisement for the sport."

Gloucester, financially tidy though they have no millionaire backer, say with feeling that they need to know now what is in the diary for next season. "When the moratorium is lifted next month, if we are not in a position to sign contracts with our players, those clubs with wealthy benefactors will just snaffle everything that's going and the rest of the game will fall apart at the seams," Coley said.

One of those newly affluent clubs in question, NEC Harlequins of London, this week unveiled plans to go fishing for new talent using 36 lucrative contracts as tasty bait. Without the multi-million-pound investment of a multinational, Gloucester fear that they are in real danger of losing their prize catches.

As things stand, the Cherry and Whites maintain that they simply do not have the wherewithal to fund competitive contracts. "This season, before professionalism even takes hold, the club has emptied its capital reserves of pounds 250,000 just to keep its existing squad happy," Coley revealed. "Without the television and sponsorship revenue the senior clubs are requesting, we have nothing left."

Gloucester have set a playing budget in excess of pounds 800,000 for next season. The problem is that the club's turnover was pounds 650,000 this year, which left them with a pre-tax profit of only pounds 160,000. "We are probably one of the best financially organised clubs in the country," Coley said. "But there is no way we can play the professional game unless we get our hands on the TV revenue from those new competitions in which we will play.

"The Five Nations' contract and the gate money at Twickenham is the RFU's. We want the new money and we know there is pounds 750,000 to pounds 1m available to each club from TV and sponsorship. That is on the table. There is a firm offer for that. Yet the RFU seem to be taking the view that because they are in debt they should have all the money.

"They want to contract the top 100 players themselves, put them all into divisional teams, play England A XVs about 11 times a year, and select from there. Frankly, if they go down that path there is no way we can survive.

"The man in the street wants to watch club rugby. People don't want Mickey Mouse divisional games. We got 2,500 turning up when the South-West played Western Samoa at Kingsholm. But Anglo-Welsh and European fixtures would be an altogether different matter. If Cliff Brittle, who is heading the RFU negotiating team, does not see sense, there will be a breakaway."

That is not what the clubs want, however. English Professional Rugby Union Clubs say they are not trying to undermine the authority of the RFU, but that they merely want some independence within the organisation. But the clock is ticking, and it is increasingly likely that rugby union will enter the professional era in the most unprofessional manner imaginable.

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