Counties' demands fan flames of RFU dispute

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The Independent Online
Yet another round of discussions between the Rugby Football Union and its leading clubs is planned for Friday, but the mere fact of meeting again should not be interpreted as indicating a solution is in sight to their intractable and interminable problems.

Indeed, a formal breakaway by those clubs scheduled to be in the First and Second Divisions of next season's Courage League is no less likely than it was before Monday's inconclusive meeting. They have already announced a boycott of the league and cup and claim to have a fixture-list incorporating European, cross-border and domestic rugby ready to publish.

Monday's meeting - at which delicate moment the antagonists agreed to avoid public comment - made no progress on the substantive issues which divide the two parties concerning the control and finance of professional club rugby. As one participant put it: "We are making progress in the areas we were always making progress in."

This leaves a chasm between the union and clubs that the appointment of Bill Bishop, the RFU president, as independent chairman of the talks has done nothing to narrow. It is evident that Cliff Brittle, the RFU executive committee chairman whom the clubs see as an insurmountable obstacle to a settlement, has as tight a hold as ever on the union's side of the debate.

He is now fortified by a belligerent intervention by the English Rugby Counties' Asso- ciation, a relic of the RFU's past but Brittle's power base when he stood to become executive chairman. Should Brittle ever backslide from his position that the union maintains its untrammelled control over the professional club game, ERCA warns that it would then mount a counter-insurrection of its own.

In a statement, ERCA specified three non-negotiable areas of exclusive RFU responsibility - control of the game, all financial matters and all competitions - and one, players' contracts, of RFU primacy. If this were to remain the RFU position, it is guaranteed that the clubs would secede.

The membership of English Professional Rugby Union Clubs, who are prone to conspiracy theories, believe Brittle has been orchestrating ERCA's campaign. The counties criticise unnamed RFU officers and executives for failing to support Brittle, a barb that is undoubtedly pointed principally at Tony Hallett, the secretary, and Bishop.

The counties' action is useful in at least one respect though: in laying bare the union's division in its own negotiating position. Whereas Bishop and the full RFU committee have acknowledged Epruc as the representative voice of the professional clubs, Brittle at Monday's meeting still declined to do so.

ERCA, meanwhile, has demanded a meeting with Bishop, Hallett and others, and if it does not receive satisfaction it will set the union on course to its third special general meeting of the year. At which point it is safe to assume the Rugby Football Union would be at the point of meltdown.

Arwel Thomas, the Wales outside-half, has signed to play for Swansea next season, leaving Bristol.

Roger Uttley and Nigel Melville, both former Wasps players and England captains, will return to the club next season. Melville will be director of rugby while Uttley will be non-executive chairman of playing.

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