England's apparently inexorable progress out of the Five Nations' Championship was sharply accelerated yesterday when the Five Nations' committee - of which the English are in increasingly uneasy membership - announced it would consider changing the format of the championship. Without England.
This is the combined Welsh, Scottish and Irish riposte to the Rugby Football Union's unilateral decision to seek its own television deal when the current pounds 27m Five Nations contract with the BBC runs out next March. The others turned down the RFU flat when it sought to change the present four-way even split to a 60 per cent share of the new contract because it had "more mouths to feed". Broadcasters are set to pay at least pounds 150m this time.
If this continues, England will soon be seeking annual fixtures with South Africa and Spain. The ramifications could also affect the British Isles touring team, the one other institution that is governed by the home unions in combination. A severance of relations with England would make next year's tour to South Africa either implausible or impossible.
The non-English home unions - France has always made its own arrangements with French TV - reached their potentially momentous decision at last Sunday's meeting in Dublin but chose to delay saying so for 48 hours. There is another meeting, also in Dublin, on 27 April when another attempt at an unlikely settlement will be made.
The RFU's status as a subsidiary host union for the 1999 World Cup was excluded from yesterday's statement. "This break by England was considered wholly unacceptable by the FNC, who insist that the conduct and sale of rights, including broadcasting rights, are to be retained by the committee," it said.
"The other member unions of the committee will now be requested to consider the future format of the Five Nations' Championship and additionally the question of relationships at all international representative levels. The breakaway by England from the existing arrangements could have implications for British Lions tours. The other unions of the Five Nations' committee will now be obliged to reappraise the positions generally."
Yesterday the RFU, having on Monday refused to recognise its Five Nations position was under any threat, remained disbelieving that it had come to this. The RFU secretary, Tony Hallett, launched a defence of the union's position based on the financial realities created by professionalism and the patronising supposition that the other unions would also be better off as a result of England's opt-out.
"In the new, increasingly commercial world created by the International Board, the RFU believes it has a responsibility to its constituent bodies and clubs in membership for maximising its own TV revenue," he said. "We believe that all unions will be able to benefit from our decision and that the Five Nations will remain inviolate."
This piece of wishful thinking makes Hallett sound as if he had never heard of the Five Nations' indignation. In any case the RFU is divided on this, as it is on how to deal with its own recalcitrant senior clubs. The union's TV stance, adopted at last Friday's meeting of the full committee, is understood to have been opposed by no less than Cliff Brittle, chairman of its executive.
The Welsh would probably be in a position to go it alone too but have, with undisguised piety, resolved to stick with the less-blessed Scots and Irish. Yesterday the Scottish , on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the battle of Culloden, pleaded for a change of heart. Another English victory like that one would not do at all.Reuse content