Football: English clubs offered pounds 30m bait

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The Independent Online
VERNON PUGH, the most powerful administrator in world rugby, yesterday attempted to lure England's rebellious professional clubs back in to Euro- pean Cup competition by dangling a financial carrot the size of Twickenham in front of their increasingly impoverished faces. The chairman of the International Board said next year's tournament could generate more than pounds 30m if the Allied Dunbar Premiership outfits swallowed their grievances, dismounted their high horses and returned to the fold.

"The English clubs are looking at anything up to 40 per cent of the pot," said Pugh, the politically astute Welsh QC who also sits on the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the much-maligned administrative body charged with organising the current cross-border competition. Assuming five places for Premiership sides, the new ballpark figure works out at around pounds 2m per entrant; enough to ease the cash-flow problems currently being felt by even the wealthiest members of the Premiership elite.

Pugh was speaking in Dublin as five of his most influential IB colleagues - Tim Gresson of New Zealand, Rian Oberholzer of South Africa, Syd Millar of Ireland, Shiggy Kono of Japan and Alan Sharp of Canada - set about grilling the Rugby Football Union at a specially convened disciplinary meeting.

Francis Baron, the RFU's new chief executive, was answering charges that the union had broken ranks with the world governing body over responses to the English clubs' attempt to secure commercial rights under European law and that it had failed to discipline those clubs over their programme of unsanctioned fixtures against the two Welsh rebels, Cardiff and Swansea.

In keeping with the previous two years of interminable political wrangling, yesterday's meeting lasted nine hours and broke up without the slightest hint of a conclusion. While the two sides were due to reconvene this morning, the IB did not intend to advise the RFU of its verdict - or, indeed, any accompanying punishment - until next week.

However, Pugh livened things up by throwing one or two unusually sharp barbs into his otherwise diplomatic offensive on the European Cup issue. "The English could have pulled in around pounds 4m this season and I must say I still find it strange that they should have decided to throw away that sort of money because they don't like the look of someone's face," he said. "They want Roger Pickering off the board and they want Tom Kiernan off the board. It's pathetic."

Pickering, the European Cup tournament director, and Kiernan, the revered Irish full-back of the 1960s and early 70s who chairs the ERC board, lost the confidence of the English contingent last season; indeed, English First Division Rugby, the umbrella organisation representing the leading Premiership sides, still insists there will be no return to continental competition until ERC heads roll and the organising body undergoes a root and branch reorganisation.

"Let's get away from the personalities and start addressing the issues," said Pugh, fully aware of his own status as the arch-bogeyman of the English refuseniks. "I know of nothing more frustrating in this whole sport than the situation surrounding this competition. There is fantastic potential here and it's being wasted.

"We've gone out of our way to give the English clubs what they want; for instance, we've changed the voting structure, even though there is not the slightest evidence of a so-called `celtic block' acting against them. And still we have this stand-off. It's a desperate situation."

The Premiership clubs announced their boycott of the current tournament almost a year ago, ironically a mere three weeks before Bath became the first English side to win the European title by beating Brive, the reigning champions, on an emotional after- noon in Bordeaux. Since then, the ERC directors have successfully prevented a walk-out by Stade Francais, Toulouse and the other major French powers, but lost Heineken, their long-suffering and overwhelmingly patient prime sponsors, who pumped pounds 10m into the tournament during the three years of their involvement.

A French delegation, led by the legendary Serge Blanco, travelled to London on Tuesday to discuss the European situation with members of the EFDR executive. Both sides described the meeting as "positive", but one EFDR insider said afterwards: "If anyone thinks we are coming back in with ERC still in place, they are seriously mistaken. We've said we can't work with ERC and we mean it."

That hardline stance may, however, be diluted if Pugh and his colleagues succeed in delivering the sort of money they were talking about yesterday.

There is no guarantee that the much-debated British League will become a reality next season - or any other season, for that matter - and the English clubs know that they need to generate income over and above that provided by their Premiership sponsors if they are to stay afloat indefinitely.

Pugh admitted that discussions over next season's domestic and European fixture schedule, severely complicated by World Cup commitments and the move to a Six Nations' international format, were not even close to a conclusion, raising the spectre of another frantic summer of political wheeling and dealing.

The British League negotiations had so far been stymied by the lack of a formal contribution from the English clubs, he said; the only thing ruled out of court was any move towards a "self-perpetuating closed shop along the lines of the proposed football super league". Clearly though, Pugh firmly believed that some English club owners were in favour of a cosy little arrangement along precisely those lines.