English rugby braced for flood of moves

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The Independent Online
The professional floodgates in English rugby union will be officially opened as soon as this season ends. When the Rugby Football Union's commission reports next week it will retain the temporary moratorium on club professionalism and the 120-day qualifying period for transferred players, but both will be removed completely in May.

The commission will not announce its findings until next Wednesday, but I understand its members reached agreement on their final verdict at a meeting in Slough on Thursday. In essence, they have decided to embrace professionalism wholeheartedly, although those who have been pressing for rapid changes may be disappointed by the delay until next year.

The near-unanimous view of the RFU's First Division clubs is that professionalism should be instituted immediately. The commission hopes to allay clubs' impatience by introducing a football-style transfer system with fees payable and a formally appointed transfer tribunal made up of rugby-minded identities unconnected with any rugby club, organisation or indeed the union itself.

The prospect of a mass movement of players as soon as the restrictions are lifted does not concern the RFU, whose view is that it will have to happen some time. "It may well be a paroxysm but at least it will be a paroxysm with plenty of advance notice," an RFU source said last night.

The commission's findings were discussed by the RFU executive yesterday. This is the union's measured response to the decision of the International Rugby Board in August to abandon amateurism and allow rugby union to go "open", a euphemism for professional. A special general meeting of all the RFU clubs will take place in London on 18 December to delete amateurism from the union's regulations.

While the commission has been meeting, English First Division clubs have been left so disaffected that there has been serious talk of a breakaway. They have formed themselves into a limited company and taken instructions from Sir John Hall, of Newcastle United and Newcastle RFC, in how to form their own Premier League.

They will not get everything they want from the commission but the RFU is hoping to do sufficient to subdue their resentment. For instance, there will be no objection to clubs having primacy in negotiating contracts once this interim season - when only members of England squads will be paid - is over, provided the necessary contractual allowances are made for representative commitments.

In addition, the RFU is prepared to commit some of the vast sums it makes out of international rugby to the leading clubs to subsidise the new dispensation. Only Newcastle, through Sir John, have so far found a substantial source of finance, though the north London club, Saracens, have now attracted a backer of their own and will announce their plans for the professional era on Tuesday.

The union is also ready to move on Europe. When the commission reports, it will recommend a restructuring of the domestic season so as to make room for English participation in a European competition which the RFU believes, after talking to the relevant broadcasting companies including ITV, would attract at least double the television revenue of the inaugural European Rugby Cup that started this week.

The RFU's plan involves Friday/Saturday play rather than midweek and envisages the support structure of a cross-border or Anglo-Welsh league. But such is the ill-feeling between the RFU and its fellow unions that it is by no means certain the other countries would acquiesce when they are already pleased with themselves after this week's successful Euro- launch.

English thinking is that the vastly increased monies available will be all the persuasion that is needed. The RFU - in the persons of Tony Hallett, the secretary, and John Jeavons-Fellows, chairman-elect of the executive committee - has done little but denigrate the present competition, even last week when a television deal with ITV of around pounds 20m over three years was announced.

The union believes it will be able to mollify the First Division clubs who passed a vote of no-confidence in the commission because of its composition. The seven-man body was appointed in September when the RFU introduced its moratorium on the introduction of professionalism at club level until next season.

Chaired by Hallett, it consists of four RFU committee men - the president, Bill Bishop, Jeavons-Fellows, Derek Morgan and Bob Taylor. Don Rutherford, the RFU's technical director, and Richard Mawditt, chairman of Bath, complete the commission.

The First Division clubs objected because, after receiving verbal assurances from Hallett and Bishop that Bryan Wilkinson of Sale would be added, Wilkinson's nomination was blocked by the RFU executive. Mawditt agreed to remain on the commission in a personal capacity. Consultants in law, tax, European Union, accountancy, equal opportunities and contract terms were appointed.

The continued postponement of professionalism leaves the clubs feeling vulnerable to the depredations of clubs such as Newcastle but it will be made clear to them that there is no bar to generous remuneration for off-the-field activities, nor on contracting players in readiness for the end of the season.

Despite the threat of a restraint-of-trade action, the 120-day registration has remained in place because the commission considered it unfair "to change the rules of the game at half-time". The RFU's legal advice is that for now there is no trade to restrain.

Cardiff's big day, page 24

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