Hallett has no doubts over England's future

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
It is a strange sort of friendship that threatens expulsion, but the Rugby Football Union's friends in the home unions could today reveal whether they really are going to invite England to leave the Five Nations' Championship because their union no longer wishes to be encumbered by the Welsh, Scots and Irish in negotiating its television contract.

The RFU, embroiled in a domestic dispute with its leading clubs, does not know whether to act innocent or indignant at such an eventuality. After all the French, even if for obvious linguistic reasons, have always had their own contract - and they have not been expelled from the Five Nations since 1931.

Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, insisted he was not being ironic when he said yesterday of the Anglo-Welsh relationship: "It is always friendly and co-operative and we speak regularly at all levels." But the fact remains that at the weekend Vernon Pugh, chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union and the International Board, announced his expectation that England would have to leave the championship.

Selective media leakages moved the threat a stage further by questioning whether the RFU would be permitted to stage its 13 allocated World Cup fixtures, including both semi-finals, in 1999 when Wales will be hosts with matches taking place in each of the five nations.

Today's statement by Bob Weighill, secretary of the home unions' and Five Nations' committees and a former RFU secretary, will show whether any of this was more than a bargaining ploy. The RFU began by asking for a rise from 25 to 60 per cent; the other unions want to maintain an equal four-way split of a sum likely to exceed pounds 150m compared with the pounds 27m the BBC paid last time.

The unneighbourliness overshadowed yesterday's official launch of the 1999 World Cup at Cardiff City Hall and announcement of the various routes by which all bar the hosts and last year's top three, South Africa, New Zealand and France, will have to qualify. England, Scotland and Ireland will host the three final European qualifying tournaments, each involving two other teams, in November 1998.

When questioning at yesterday's launch turned to the purported threat to England, Pugh made one oddly ambivalent remark concerning the share- out of matches for the '99 tournament. "We have an arrangement with the members of the Five Nations and while they remain members of the Five Nations' Championship that arrangement will continue," he said.

The RFU had been hostilely received at Sunday's Five Nations meeting in Dublin and Hallett is less sanguine privately than he is in public. "All we've done is make a statement that the RFU wishes to negotiate its own TV rights," he said.

"We are members of the Five Nations, intend to remain members of the Five Nations, and I know of no plans to expel us. Membership of the Five Nations is not incumbent on television negotiating rights. I can't see what the connection between membership of the Five Nations and World Cup is."

The process to produce 17 World Cup qualifiers consists of 138 matches involving 66 unions played in five geographical zones - Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Pacific. The first matches will involve Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Brazil, to be played by this December. The last will be in the three-team tournaments at Twickenham, Murrayfield and Lansdowne Road 23 months later.