England's leading clubs have changed their minds and are now considering a 12 rather than 10-team First Division next season which would avoid the inconvenience of relegation for this season, preserving the present top flight with the addition of the first two finishers in the Second Division.
These will include Northampton, who are already members of the First Division clubs' limited company as well as English Professional Clubs Ltd, the body through which the clubs are acting as an alternative power bloc to the Rugby Football Union. A 12-team league would sit more symmetrically with the present 12-team Welsh First Division in establishing a full- blown 24-strong Anglo-Welsh competition for next season.
This is the latest bone of contention between the clubs and their governing body as both attempt to come to terms with the new professionalism. The union is only too aware, not least because the clubs have made very sure they are, that a failure to come to financial agreement could lead to a breakaway.
The 12-team proposition is expected to be put by Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Leicester, to Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, at an imminent meeting. The optimistic Hallett suggested last night that he wanted the debate between the union and clubs to be satisfactorily concluded by the end of this month.
Would that it were so easy. The top four finishers in the Courage league have already been earmarked by the RFU for entry into next season's expanded European Cup, with the remaining six members of the First Division to participate in an inaugural Anglo-Welsh competition on top of the Courage league.
The RFU is in a bind because its sponsorship contract with Courage has another season to run whereas the Welsh 's with Heineken terminates at the end of this season. This makes a cross-border structure such as that favoured by the English clubs a contractual impossibility for the RFU without some sort of renegotiation with Courage.
The union is also concerned at the effect of such a sharp expansion in competitive club activity on its international programme. Hallett's alternative option is that relegation proceeds but that the two who go down are added to the four not qualified for Europe in the Anglo-Welsh competition. At the same time, the clubs are also interested in a second tier of European rugby. "At the end of the day," Hallett sighed, "Solomon's judgement is going to be involved."
The latest in the latter-day line of gargantuan English locks will make his debut for England A against the Irish at Richmond on Friday. As well as Chris Murphy, 20, a 6ft 8in and 19st 4lb student who plays for West Hartlepool, the Wasps centre Nick Greenstock will have his first chance at this level as England go for their fifth straight win. A back injury forced the No 8, Stuart Davies, to withdraw from the Wales A team to play the French at Newport on Friday.
ENGLAND A (v Ireland A, Richmond, Friday): T Stimpson (West Hartlepool); P Hull (Bristol), W Greenwood (Harlequins), N Greenstock (Wasps), A Adebayo (Bath); A King (Bristol University), A Gomarsall (Wasps); R Hardwick (Coventry), R Cockerill, D Garforth (Leicester), C Murphy (West Hartlepool), D Sims (Gloucester), M Corry (Bristol), A Diprose (Saracens, capt), R Jenkins (Harlequins). Replacements: P Mensah (Harlequins), R Liley (Sale), A Healey (Orrell), K Yates (Bath), P Greening (Gloucester), C Sheasby (Harlequins).
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