Executive stress fractures union

Chris Rea reflects on the disunity that led to the sad isolation of England
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England's bluff has been well and truly called. Whether the decision of the other three home countries together with France is for real or merely a negotiating ploy, England's gamble that financial necessity would overcome parochial resistance to the BSkyB deal has completely failed.

The legality of this pre-emptive strike by the combined unions given the current contract with the BBC for coverage of the Five Nations' championship next season has to be questioned, but if they are not in breach of contract then heaven preserve England from the fury of their debenture holders, who even now will be queuing up to redeem their loans.

It was clear during Friday's shambolic AGM that the Rugby Football Union were clutching at straws. "Our only hope," the outgoing president Bill Bishop said feebly, "appears to lie with Wales." But Wales are no more prepared to play ball than Scotland and Ireland are, hence the decision to destroy one of the most cherished and more envied competitions that exists in world sport. England must go back to the drawing board, and quickly if they are to salvage something from this indescribable mess. The position of those who negotiated the wretched deal with BSkyB, along with several officers of the RFU, must be questioned, as it should have been at the AGM had circumstances permitted.

There were so many plants in the Grand Ballroom of the Park Lane Hilton in London on Friday that it was not at all certain whether we were attending the AGM of the RFU or the Chelsea Flower Show. But long before Bill Bishop, the outgoing president, stepped in to save his beleaguered committee and the gravely ill treasurer, David Robinson, from further punishment, it was painfully obvious that the RFU had got themselves into the mother of all pickles.

First prize in the plant section went to the gentleman who asked whether Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the executive committee, could possibly do the job to which he had been elected by a resounding majority when he had been refused access to important information and denied the opportunity of sitting on committees such as that which had negotiated the television contract with BSkyB. The speed and agility with which Mr Brittle reached the podium to deliver his impromptu reply from a carefully prepared script suggested that he was not altogether surprised by the question. His position, he agreed, was unacceptable and, as it stood at present, untenable.

The other plants were more windbag than Gro-bag, but by now the damage had been done to the RFU's credibility and so dreadfully did the remnants of the committee and their specialist advisers fumble their lines that Mr Brittle's support grew stronger by the second.

If the working party set up to investigate the breakdown in communications within the executive is truly independent, then blood will have to be spilled. The heavy-handedness with which they have conducted their business over the television contract demands some form of reprisal from the rank and file. Resignations are inevitable.

They had not even done their basic homework. To imply, as they did in a prepared statement, that Sky will deliver 14.5 million viewers is not so much massaging figures as bouncing them up against a wall. The average viewing figure for Sky's weekly coverage of club rugby last season was a derisory 37,000. Those points had clearly not escaped those on the other home union committees, who were less easily seduced by the Murdoch shilling.

Considerable doubt was also cast on the RFU's claim that, within the terms of the contract, there would be no pay-per-view nor a monthly rental charge to clubs who have access to Sky. The guarantee that one away international would be screened on a terrestrial channel was also questioned. The arrogance of the RFU in making that assurance when they had not reached agreement with any other union, let alone a terrestrial channel, was exposed by yesterday's events.

The decision to put David Robinson in the firing line was at best misguided, at worst shameful. The treasurer is a hugely courageous man and it is very possible that, as chairman of the television negotiating committee, he considered it his duty to take the flak, but he is desperately ill and was simply not up to it. If, on the other hand, it was believed that Robinson's condition would help win the sympathy of the meeting and save the RFU from more rigorous scrutiny of their actions, then it was an unforgivable act of cynicism.

We must give the RFU the benefit of the doubt but that there should even be a suspicion of sharp practice is bad enough, because this is arguably one of the most important decisions ever made by the RFU with the consequences reaching far beyond the English game

It required to be debated at length and in the greatest possible detail, but on Friday it was not, and that is inexcusable. Now at last it will be open to debate again, but only because the other unions have forced the RFU's hand.

They now find themselves in a terrible mess that was entirely avoidable. The more one sees of the new professionalism, the less appealing it becomes.