England ostracised over pounds 87.5m TV deal

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
England are prepared to resort to legal action if they are expelled from next season's Five Nations' Championship. Last night the other three Home Unions rounded on the Rugby Football Union after Twickenham announced an pounds 87.5m deal over five years, running from 1997-98 to 2001-2002, for exclusive live broadcast rights of all international, representative and club matches with Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB.

Terrestrial companies will be invited to bid for the rights to broadcast matches in full, no earlier than two hours after they have gone out live on BSkyB. As yet there are no takers: ITV could have scheduling problems around the 6-6.30pm mark, but BBC2 may move in for it, although they are likely to have to pay substantially more than their present pounds 27m for live broadcasts if they want to show the games long after the results will be known.

The RFU currently receives 37 per cent of the present deal with the BBC, worth pounds 27m, with a further pounds 7m or so coming from Sky, but that contract expires at the end of next season.

An RFU official said that, having taken legal advice, it feels it has a good case and it is expected to seek further counsel, although it is reluctant to drag the matter into the courts. But an unpleasant legal battle is looking inevitable.

The consequence of England's go-it-alone deal was spelled out by Scotland. "We are pretty confident England will be asked to make alternative arrangements for season 1997-98," Fred McLeod, the vice-president of the Scottish Rugby Union, said. "It is an extremely sad day for Five Nations rugby and a matter of sincere and profound regret."

McLeod also implied that England's ostracisation would not stop at expulsion from the money-spinning tournament. "I would like to make it clear to the RFU that this decision will jeopardise matches at all age-group levels, not just full international matches, " he said. "They will also now have difficulties finding match officials."

The Welsh Rugby Union chairman, Vernon Pugh, speaking from Brisbane on BBC Radio Five Live, said: "The other four countries [France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales] have made their minds up as to what they would do in the event of this happening. England are excluding themselves from the Five Nations by what they have done."

When asked if that meant England would not be involved in next season's Five Nations, Pugh replied: "I think it very unlikely."

Tom Kiernan, the Irish chairman of the Five Nations committee, said: "It's very hard for us to understand why one country in a very successful competition should risk damaging it. This is one of the saddest days in my rugby career."

In France, where their Rugby federation negotiates its own TV deals independently of the four home unions, a leading official there said they wanted to play in the Five Nations, but if England were kicked out they would play them anyway, possibly on a home and away basis.

Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said: "We desperately hope that this TV deal will not lead to our exclusion from the Five Nations. We wish to remain within it." But he added that in the event of their expulsion then England would play other countries next winter.

John Jeavons-Fellows, the RFU's representative on the Five Nations, was defiant at yesterday's announcement, which was made in the absence of RFU executive chairman Cliff Brittle - said to be at home on the Isle of Man. Jeavons-Fellows said: "All England have done is to sell the broadcasting rights for games played in England. We have never tried to sell the Five Nations. England will still honour their Five Nations fixtures and turn up for them next season."

BSkyB revealed that they had offered the other three Home Unions pounds 97m over the same five year period but had as yet received no response. The money, though, would be dependent on England remaining in the Five Nations, otherwise there would be a substantial reduction. One Scottish official described the offer as derisory. The cash in that deal would be split, with 40 per cent going to Wales and 30 per cent to the other two.