High noon for union

Leading clubs to meet RFU as the threat of player defections to Kerry Packer grows
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The Independent Online
REPRESENTATIVES of Courage League clubs will this week meet the Rugby Football Union in an attempt to force concessions that will quell the threat to the game posed by Kerry Packer's "circus". If a satisfactory conclusion is not reached, it is likely that a large number of top English players will leave their clubs and the national side.

Packer, the Australian media magnate, has had agents in England since the World Cup ended four weeks ago. According to a report in the Independent yesterday, 140 Courage League players have provisionally accepted contracts which include a pounds 130,000 down payment. This led to 10 of the National League One clubs attending a crisis meeting on Friday in London.

Three players were present and decided with the clubs that if the domestic game was to retain its leading players, considerable pressure would have to be put on the RFU to make it worth their while financially. "The clubs have always been bossed around by the RFU," Paul Turner, the Sale player- coach, said yesterday, "and now they are having to fight for what they've got."

One senior England team member made it clear yesterday that the players would prefer to stay in the English league game, but that a satisfactory financial reward must now become available. This is the primary of the demands to the RFU.

The first round of talks will take place tomorrow at Twickenham, where Bill Bishop, the new ruling body's president, is to meet Alwynne Evans, the chief executive of the Senior Clubs Association.

Two demands besides money matters will be brought to the RFU. It will be asked to restructure the game to give clubs European fixtures and to relax its strict rules over the movement of players between clubs.

While the end of amateurism within the game had been accepted by the RFU, its executives had been waiting for the International Board meeting in August before addressing the issue of player payment. Packer's involvement, however, has given the players bargaining power and may force Twickenham's hand.

Yesterday Bishop was dismissing any threat. "We are committed to our league programme for the coming season and so are the senior clubs," he said. "They are not in a position to do anything else. But what the players do is up them. Of course if a player does go to Mr Packer then he is making a mistake because in the laws of the game there is no way back."

Bishop was not informed about the meeting on Friday which was convened in considerable secrecy. It was called early last week, and instrumental to its organisation was Nigel Felton, the former Northamptonshire cricketer who works as a part-time-consultant with Northampton RFC.

The sensitivity of its contents was such that Jon Callard, the Bath and England full-back who was there along with his team-mate Nigel Redman and one other player, would reveal little of what was discussed. "The whole issue is very delicate. It's nothing I can talk about. I don't even know the full facts."

Mike Burton, the former England player who works as an agent for Rupert Murdoch, Packer's chief rival in the bid for control of the game, yesterday suggested that Packer will enjoy at least some early success in his bid. "A lot of players will go and play in the circus," he said, "but it won't have a long-term effect because people will always want to play and watch internationals. It won't survive."

Mike Teague, who was recently appointed team manager of Gloucester, believes that the domestic game is fighting a losing battle: "What's the alternative to going to Packer? What we are left with here is this farce which is English rugby. At the end of the day, it comes down to security for yourself and your family. If I was playing the game now, I would go to Packer."

The three choices facing top players

Kerry Packer

THE strength of Packer's position is that he has reached provisional agreements directly with key players in England and the southern hemisphere. He has an acceptance in principle from up to 140 First Division players with some fees topping pounds 140,000. He plans a new World Rugby Championship starting in November and featuring around 30 professional teams for screening on Optus Vision, the pay-TV consortium in which he is a partner. Optus, which has a tie-up with the world's largest sports programmer, ESPN, has exclusive rights to Australian Rules, cricket, tennis and rugby league.

Rupert Murdoch

MURDOCH was the front runner in the campaign to exploit the collapse of amateurism which followed the Rugby World Cup, although his plans did not involve any British players. Foxtel, of which Murdoch's News Corp owns 50 per cent, agreed a pounds 350m deal with the Australian, South African and New Zealand unions for the 10-year rights to televise a 12-team provincial event - in place of the Super-10 Tournament - and all the international matches played in each of the three countries. But it seems Murdoch's agreement by no means guarantees their players' co-operation.

The RFU

OFFICERS of the Rugby Football Union have acknowledged that amateurism at the top probably has no long-term future. But they have been waiting for the International Board to meet next month to discuss the whole question in the light of Packer and Murdoch's blandishments. Another problem for RFU is that the First Division clubs may be considering a Premiership- style breakaway. Unlike the Test and County Cricket Board, the RFU can have no recourse to law over player defections because, as amateurs, the English players are under no contractual obligations.

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