England out of the Five Nations

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The Independent Online
The stakes, and a stack of questions, were raised last night in rugby union's latest game of brinksmanship when England were kicked out of next season's Five Nations' Championship.

Their four partners in the world's oldest tournament - Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France - made it clear that, as far as they were concerned, the Rugby Football Union's AGM on Friday was the last straw in an increasingly hostile conflict over the sale of England's Five Nations' TV rights for five years from the start of the 1997-98 season to BSkyB for pounds 87.5m.

England's Celtic cousins were not impressed and have carried out their long-standing threat to go it alone, though a proviso allows France to maintain international contact on a non-championship basis.

Tom Kiernan, the chairman of the Five Nations Committee, from which England effectively broke ranks when they signed the Sky deal, said: "The key points of the new championship are that it will be played on a home and away basis between January and May in each season. The signed agreement is in place for the next 10 years. Unless circumstances change in the near future, Ireland, Scotland and Wales will not play England. None of the four unions will play England in the period between 1 January and the end of that or any subsequent season. Further, should France decide to play England during any other part of the season, that will not be as part of any competition, championship or challenge. We had all been hoping that the RFU's AGM would have seen England returning to the Five Nations' fold, but this does not appear to be the case."

The brinksmanship is there for all to see, but so are the questions. Where, for instance, does it leave the BBC, who have one season remaining of their contract to televise Five Nations rugby? They might have a case for suing the other four nations for selling them short of England next season. Will Sky still be prepared to pay the RFU pounds 87.5m for a One Nation Championship? Or perhaps there is a hidden agenda to team England up with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in a new Four Nations' Championship (add France, the only other genuine world power, and you would have a Five Nations which might raise even Rupert Murdoch's eyebrows). And where does all this leave next year's British Lions tour to South Africa, not to mention the 1999 World Cup.

With almost pounds 100m reportedly on the table for Wales, Ireland and Scotland, their steadfast rejection of the Sky deal cannot have been easy. But the WRFU's chairman, Vernon Pugh, who is also chairman of the Five Nations television committee, and his colleagues are men of principle.

"It is the strong view of the other unions that rugby people and the public have a right to see the top rugby competition in the northern hemisphere, or at least a very large part of it, shown live on TV without restrictions imposed by satellite and pay-per-view," Pugh said. "Rugby is a growing sport, which it is our duty to foster. Its growth and popularity is dependent on exposure of the best the game has to offer. Ireland, Scotland and Wales believe they share jointly in playing the championship. If we share the playing of a competition, it is fair that we share equally the proceeds from it."

Kiernan said his committee resisted banning England before the AGM in case the RFU had a change of heart. But he added: "The position of the other four unions and our signed agreement was made known to the RFU prior to their AGM on Friday. We believed it was for their officers to inform RFU members of the position rather than us issuing any public statement. I'm not aware this information was made known at the AGM."

Tony Hallett, the RFU's secretary, said: "We're very disappointed to hear the statement as only last week we were involved in talks at a very high level. The presidents of England and Wales agreed that the Five Nations competition was of paramount importance to the game and should continue as such. Scotland and Ireland were kept informed of these talks."

Allan Hosie, the committee's Scottish Rugby Union representative, said: "We hope England, even at this late hour, realise they cannot sell what is not theirs to sell, and return to the Five Nations table."

Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the RFU's executive committee and a known opponent of the Sky deal, was aghast at the news. "It's a shock," he said. "I have said on a number of occasions that the continuance of the Five Nations Championship is of paramount importance to the unions involved and the rugby public at large. I will speak to our new president, John Richardson, as soon as possible to discuss the matter and I trust I will be involved in any future talks to try to work out a solution to this pressing problem. It will be a sad day for rugby football if we cannot prevent the dissolution of the Five Nations' Championship."

Chris Rea, page 26

Then there were four

New championship will start in the 1996-97 season

Agreement will be in place for 10 years

Competing nations will be Ireland, Wales, Scotland and France

New championship will take place between Jan and May

It will be played on a home and away basis

Wales, Scotland and Ireland will not be able to play England at any time

If France play England, the match cannot form part of any official competition

Tournament will be televised by terrestrial stations only