Finalists cause further embarrassment to RFU

Rugby Union
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Faced with yet another cause of controversy with its clubs, the Rugby Football Union yesterday acceded to indignant - and very belated - demands from its Pilkington Cup finalist clubs for a bigger share of the pounds 1.2m proceeds.

Rather than have Bath and Leicester boycott the match instead of performing before a world-record club attendance of 75,000 at Twickenham on 4 May, the RFU will indulge in a form of creative accounting to ensure they each receive an additional pounds 10,000 or so on top of the pounds 40,000 already guaranteed.

This latest dispute came at an acutely embarrassing time, on the very day that Pilkington was announcing a renewal of its cup sponsorship for pounds 1.1m over three years. The glass manufacturers' previous three-year deal, also covering the Pilkington Shield for junior clubs, was for pounds 750,000. The RFU is now to seek a new sponsor for the shield in conjunction with a competition for intermediate clubs to be introduced next season.

After the week it has just had - a breakdown of its relationship both with its own senior clubs, who have announced their withdrawal from cup and league next season, and its neighbouring unions, which are threatening to expel England from the Five Nations' Championship - the RFU was blissfully relieved at finally having some good news to impart. However, true to recent form, it was overshadowed.

Telephone negotiations between Tony Hallett, the ever-more harassed RFU secretary, and Peter Wheeler, Leicester's chief executive, carried on even while yesterday's announcement was being made. "We were concerned about the income we were going to get considering the large administrative costs we have incurred selling tickets," Wheeler said. "Having spoken to Tony Hallett, I'm happy that they are now looking at ways of bringing about a fair amount of revenue for the competing finalists."

Leicester have sold pounds 300,000-worth of tickets for the final, which has been a sell-out since before the quarter-finals, and feel entitled to some recompense. Until five years ago, clubs received a commission of 10 per cent on ticket sales.

This year's finalists' share-out - four per cent of the gate less the RFU's 15 per cent management fee plus other expenses - was agreed by the clubs before the start of the season, which makes it invidious for Bath and Leicester to start complaining now when the final is scarcely a fortnight away. As it is, the RFU will cover the extra payment under the loose headings of accommodation, travel and administration of tickets.

Pilkington's renewed backing has occurred against an uneasy backdrop, since as things stand neither Leicester nor Bath nor any other members of England's club elite intend participating. Hallett, however, ventures to suggest they will. "We do need every now and again a bit of good news," he said. "We believe there is no intention whatsoever to leave the Pilkington Cup."

David Roycroft, Pilkington's head of corporate affairs, added: "The last thing I want to do is get involved in RFU politics but it is quite clear from our actions that we see a great future for this competition." Whether this turns out to be the case will not be resolved this week, because Cliff Brittle, chairman of the RFU, will not meet club representatives until next week at the earliest.

By then he will no longer be able to assert, as he has, that English Professional Rugby Union Clubs Ltd (Epruc) does not or cannot speak for the clubs with whom the union is at loggerheads. Yesterday the 20 chairmen of the First and Second Division collectively sent a letter to Twickenham that left no one in any doubt.

More rugby union, page 27

Letters, page 26

Leading article, page 16