Cotton puts pressure on rebellious clubs

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Fran Cotton served almost a decade in the dark dungeon of the England front row, during which time he perfected the art of squeezing his opponents until their eyes popped out.

Retirement has not made him any less formidable and yesterday he muscled in on the family squabble that continues to disrupt English rugby by turning the screw on dissident clubs.

The former England captain, who will manage the Lions in South Africa next summer, called on the Rugby Football Union to press the issue by giving the clubs a stark choice: agree with the "fair and reasonable" settlement on the table or push off.

"I don't think for a moment that many, if any, of the top clubs genuinely want to go it alone but if there were to be a breakaway, we would have to get along without them," he said. "In the short term, we might lose some very good players and some strong clubs. But the matter of principle at stake - that the governing body should continue to run the game in this country, just as every other governing body runs the game everywhere else - is too important to concede."

The decision of the clubs to boycott the divisional matches against several touring sides - the Argentinians, Queensland and the Junior Springboks are all heading for Britain - has infuriated Cotton, who sees divisional rugby as an essential stepping stone between league and international competition.

The chairman of Sale, Nick Lunt, offered him support last night when he said his club's players could play in divisionals. "It is a matter entirely for them and not the club," he said.

What has particularly angered Cotton are suggestions that his attitude is coloured by his business interests. "I'm prepared to enter into a debate about the value of divisional rugby but I don't like my integrity being called into question. My company has sponsored the Northern Division for five years and the commercial value we derive from that association is zero."

Meanwhile England's leading clubs heard sales pitches from the RFU and English Professional Rugby Union Clubs at Northampton yesterday. Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said: "This was not part of our head-to-head negotiations with Epruc. It was a presentation by both parties to about 15 of the 24 clubs in Leagues One and Two."