English clubs call off Welsh matches

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The Independent Online
English club rugby flexed its muscles yesterday and forced the postponement of the Anglo-Welsh matches scheduled for the end of August. Bath, England's double champions, were due to play Neath, the Welsh champions, at Twickenham on 31 August, while Leicester, the Courage League runners-up, were to have played Pontypridd, the Welsh Cup winners, in Cardiff the following day.

But the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs voted unanimously at the weekend to call the whole thing off because there was no sponsor, even though the participants had been guaranteed a minimum of pounds 50,000 each. Furthermore, it clashed with the opening weekend of the Courage League.

Orrell are down to play Bath at home on the Saturday, while Leicester travel to Saracens. Orrell and Saracens had threatened to sue the Rugby Football Union for loss of revenue, although Leicester were prepared to turn out twice in two days.

However, Epruc have informed the RFU that they cannot fulfil the fixtures and so they have been postponed for a year. An Epruc spokesman said last night: "It should have been an Epruc competition as agreed under the delegated powers the RFU had agreed to give us. The matches were supposed to have been played on 17 and 24 August anyway, but they [the RFU] forced the 31 August date on us."

The RFU's secretary, Tony Hallett, denied that the clubs had overruled Twickenham and explained: "We received a polite letter in which the clubs asked if they could be released from their commitment. But we think it is still a worthwhile concept and we will look to stage it next year."

The postponement angered Pontypridd's secretary, Cenydd Thomas, who said: "We can't understand it. Three weeks ago I sat down with representatives from Neath and the two English clubs and thrashed out all the details. There were no reservations. We received 5,000 tickets which were due to go on sale this week, now we've been told the English clubs don't want to know."

The RFU has more pressing problems as its executive meets this morning attempting to come up with alternative proposals to safeguard England's place in the Five Nations Championship, not just for next year but the foreseeable future.

With the RFU insisting that although, following talks last week with BSkyB, the satellite company is willing to show a degree of flexibility, the contract they have with Twickenham is legal and binding. The RFU also maintains that BSkyB's pounds 87.5m will guarantee the unity of the RFU, clubs and players for the next five years. The others claim that the negotiations have to start again and, it is rumoured, they do not want BSkyB to dominate any broadcasting agreement.

If it transpires that BSkyB have to be kept out of the picture then the RFU are prepared to go it alone. They will take the top clubs with them, thus averting a split in their ranks, and will set up an alternative pan European, inter-hemisphere tournament of their own. There is every chance that will take with them the Welsh clubs, who are unhappy with the Welsh Rugby Union and have negotiated a deal of their own with BSkyB.

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