English clubs in state of tension

Sponsorship deal fails to sway RFU's European outlook. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
If there is one thing above all others calculated to exacerbate the tensions that exist between the Rugby Football Union and its leading clubs, it is Europe. Fault-lines in the Conservative party, fault-lines in another well-known conservative institution.

The pursuit of Bath, which continues this afternoon with Leicester, the champions, against Bristol while the leaders play Saracens, ought to have European ramifications - but still the RFU refuses to join the party to which everyone else has already accepted an invitation.

Initially there were mutterings about poor floodlighting, poor crowds, poor commercial backing - who would want such a thing? The answer came this week when ITV and Heineken between them pledged more than pounds 20m over three years, a package not even dependent on whether England deign to participate next season.

Still the RFU is unimpressed, as are those same leading clubs - though in the clubs' case it is with the RFU for denying them the opportunity to participate this season and threatening to do the same again in 1996. There are, after all, professional bills now to pay.

The attitude of the RFU, which seems to be saying it will allow English participation only in a structure devised by itself, merely confirms the low opinion England's European partners have of the haughty way the RFU has lately been treating them. The English clubs would not beg to differ.

So if and when Bath, Leicester and others qualify to join next season's pan-European competition and the RFU says no, rely on it that a crisis would be unleashed that could terminate an uneasy relationship. For now, the clubs can only look on in frustration as the Welsh, French, Irish, Italians and Romanians begin their inaugural championship next week. (The Scots are already signed up for next season.)

The European prospect explains why Neath's priority this week is today's Heineken League visit to Pontypridd rather than the midweek victory over Fiji which did the club such a power of good. Cardiff, too, could be excused for regarding their own Fijian fixture today as an inconvenient interruption. Pontypridd and Llanelli, away to Newport, have this opportunity to remove them from the top.

In England Bath restore the Ireland wing, Simon Geoghegan, against Saracens. Leicester have the England No 8, Dean Richards, free after suspension to face Bristol. Harlequins, who are third, have Brian Moore as rota hooker at Gloucester though, if Simon Mitchell were to add an appearance against Leicester next Saturday to the one he made against Bath a week ago, Moore's continuing England aspirations would hardly be encouraged.

The truncated England squad have an extra session at Marlow tomorrow, but when the selection to face South Africa in three weeks will finally emerge is still unclear. Jack Rowell, the team manager, originally said it would be before Tuesday's session, also at Marlow, but now no one at the RFU - least of all Rowell, it seems - has a clue.

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