Hubris at the heart of great English schism

Tomorrow, the RFU may find its war on two fronts has backfired, tearing rugby union apart. Steve Bale reports
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The Independent Online
Being a military man, Captain Tony Hallett (RN retired) should have known the folly of fighting on two fronts. For the Rugby Football Union, the ghastly prospect of losing not only its leading clubs but also its neighbouring unions may become a virtual reality.

This is not what Hallett signed up for when he accepted the RFU shilling and left the service to succeed Dudley Wood as secretary. If only it were as simple as commanding a destroyer, he could be excused for thinking. Destroyer? Ouch.

Up there in his well- appointed cabin at Twickenham, a day is not the same without some new crisis, and tomorrow the one with the clubs could well become terminal. And lest we forget, the English are on the brink of being drop-kicked out of the Five Nations as well.

As things stand, there is as little chance of resolving how professional club rugby in England is to be financed and administered as there is in eradicating mad cow disease. For BSE and CJD, read RFU. After last Friday's inconclusive meeting, the clubs let it be known that tomorrow's would be make or break. Now it has turned into a meeting of the full RFU committee - all 61 of them - and all the evidence makes it more likely to be break.

So attention must turn to what happens then, after the great breakaway, and an inexorable logic is at work which it is quite conceivable to see culminating in England's being represented in a revamped Five Nations competition by an alternative, non-RFU team.

The other home unions are so fed up with English cupidity - the very sin of which the union accuses the clubs - that they could feasibly bring themselves to deal with an alternative to the RFU, which has in effect been given a month to abandon its policy of seeking a television contract separate from the rest.

You need only examine the state of relations between England and its uneasy partners in the Five Nations to see how tempting this retort to a century of perceived arrogance would be. As an otherwise pleasant day in Dublin for last Saturday's Peace Match confirmed, everyone - but everyone - is sick to death of the Rugby Football Union.

Jack Rowell, the England manager, has been fond of emphasising (as explanation and, sometimes, excuse) the importance of an even longer history when his team face up to insurgent Scots, Welsh or Irish and the antipathy between English and French rugby is among the game's defining features in the Nineties.

But Rowell could never have imagined that the on-field anti-Englishness with which he is familiar would be so precisely emulated off the field too. The RFU, for which this season has been an endless strategic and tactical calamity, held a hostage to fortune with its insistence on opting out of the joint Five Nations television negotiations and their Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts are demanding as ransom that the English abase themselves by backing down.

If present positions are maintained, the other four nations - France included - will proceed with plans for a new home-and-away tournament without England from next season when the BBC's contract is in the last of its three years. And as if the RFU's pariah status were not bad enough, it is then perfectly possible that the big English clubs, by then seceded from the governing body, would seek to enter a team of their own so as to re-form the Five Nations' Championship.

Remember, the First Division players headed by Phil de Glanville and Lawrence Dallaglio have already pledged their allegiance, in the event of a split, to the leading clubs represented by English Professional Rugby Union Clubs Ltd (Epruc) and self-evidently would also want international rugby both for financial reasons and for its own sake.

This has been made explicit within the past fortnight by the England lock Martin Bayfield, who says that players of his ilk would not stand idly by if they were not participating in the championship and would get on with organising their own team. It is not as if player/union relations have any recent history of cordiality, and one can clearly see a move such as postulated by Bayfield fitting rather neatly into Epruc's schemes.

Nor would it necessarily end there. The RFU was hardly a soul-mate of the big southern-hemisphere rugby unions during the years that led at last to the International Board's embrace of professionalism nine months ago, and it is a presumption on Twickenham's part to think that, simply because it wills it, it will have Australia, New Zealand and South Africa queuing to play here.

Quite the contrary in fact, if we are to believe Keith Parkinson of the South African RFU executive, who suggested the calendar was already too congested. An endless alternative diet of, say, Italy, Argentina and sundry Pacific islanders would be an unappetising substitute for Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France and unworthy of Twickenham's 75,000 capacity or the pounds 34m still owed on it.

And anyway who is to say the "Sanza" countries would not prefer to take on Epruc England, being a team representative of the strength of English rugby, than RFU England? Although the RFU habitually presumes that what is good for it is good for everyone else, everyone else disagrees.

In the meanwhile the protagonists can only wait for tomorrow - but not hope, since every time there has been optimism it has gone unrequited. England, or rather English rugby as represented by the RFU, faces meltdown. For New England, on the other hand, the rest of the world awaits.

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