England run risk of Five Nations ban

Rugby Union
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At a time when the Rugby Football Union needs all the friends it can get during the wrangle with the leading English clubs, it yesterday succeeded in antagonising the three other home unions by opting out of the joint negotiations on the next television contract. England are doing to their co-unions what they say their clubs are doing to them.

The upshot, if we are to believe Vernon Pugh, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union and International Rugby Board, is that England will be expelled from the Five Nations' Championship. Italy would be the obvious replacements but if the English First and Second Division clubs do break away from the RFU, this would then leave the way clear for the other four nations to invite the breakers-away to put forward an alternative England XV. It really could happen.

The ramifications do not end there. If the RFU does not retreat, it is threatened with the removal of its right to stage matches, including two semi-finals, during the 1999 World Cup to be hosted by Wales, and could face expulsion from the competition. The format for the qualifying rounds - which will involve England, Scotland and Ireland - are to be announced today.

The Welsh, Scots and Irish were informed at a meeting in Dublin yesterday - specifically called to consider the contract - that the English intend to do their own deal, though the RFU had already issued a curiously timed statement on Saturday night telling everyone else. "This decision has been backed by the RFU full committee and recognises the imperatives of the open game and the overall promotion of rugby," Tony Hallett, the union's secretary, said.

The RFU's conduct of this matter is completely baffling. Only last Tuesday Cliff Brittle, who as chairman of the RFU executive was already embroiled in the dispute with the clubs, said that the union would make no comment on its other dispute pending the Dublin meeting. At the same time Hallett described the Five Nations' Championship as "the jewel in the crown". Now we can see what he meant.

One of the imperatives for the RFU is the need to pay for the new Twickenham, which has left them pounds 35m in debt, a figure which is believed to require pounds 3m a year just to service. The RFU demanded a 60 per cent slice of the next contract - an obvious contrast with the equal four-way split that has been the practice at previous negotiations - and was turned down flat.

The RFU estimates that 70 per cent of home-union viewers are in England and is trying to portray itself as being reasonable in seeking only 60 per cent. The trouble is there is a gargantuan sum involved, since preliminary estimates for the next contract, starting in the 1997-98 season, put the overall going rate at pounds 150m. The last three-year contract was a snip for the BBC at pounds 27m.

Hallett patronisingly suggests that the English decision will be good for the other countries as well, but the fact is that only Welsh rugby has sufficient clout for it to attract a significant proportion of TV's millions and anyway the WRU's attitude - as presented by Pugh - contrasts with the RFU's in its determination to stand shoulder to shoulder with its Celtic cousins.

The RFU can take it that the Welsh, Scots and Irish in cahoots with the French will now do all they can to undermine the English. It is even being suggested that the French federation, its view coloured by a perennially uneasy relationship with Twickenham, has offered alternative membership to the rebel English clubs if they break away.