Invader Brittle predicts peace

Steve Bale reports on the first meeting of the RFU chaired by a man it opposed
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The Independent Online
Cliff Brittle, the man who you could say broke the Rugby Football Union, yesterday sat at the Twickenham top table and announced that the RFU's second attempt at a special general meeting on the passing of amateurism would bring peace in our time.

Brittle is the parvenu from the Isle of Man who shocked the establishment by trouncing the RFU committee's own nomination - and the unanimous choice of its executive committee - to be chairman of that self-same executive. Last Friday he therefore presided for the first time over men who had been as one in opposing to him.

The first sgm having been abandoned in chaos without a single word's debate on the report of the RFU commission which had been supposed to be its centrepiece, the RFU is planning another back where it all began at the Birmingham International Convention Centre on 24 March. That happens to be Passion Sunday.

"I see no problem at all," Brittle said yesterday. "No one has ever said to me one word against the top end being paid, and they want to see the top end of the game being successful. The game is an open game but we don't know some of the questions let alone the answers. Some people will want to be paid to play and some parts will want to remain as they are."

Brittle, a 54-year-old retired businessman who has represented Staffordshire on the Union since 1989, beat John Jeavons-Fellows, one of the RFU's International Board delegates, by 647 votes to 332 at the aborted sgm on 14 January. The important support of the counties was seen as a defiant gesture against the stridency with which the big clubs were demanding special treatment (ie more money from the RFU) in order to cope with professionalism.

However, yesterday Brittle, who once played for Sale and also coached his native county, ventured that his discussions with Peter Wheeler of Leicester, prime mover in the English First Division clubs, had been encouraging. Moreover, he assured these clubs that urgently finalising the new professional dispensation was his priority.

"Since the decision of the International Board in August to go open, the top end of the game has serious problems," Brittle said. "These have to be resolved and we have to pay attention to these problems now and not later on. There's no question the speed of decision-making has to be improved immensely. There is no way the national clubs can wait two or three months for a decision from the Rugby Union."

Brittle said of his first executive meeting: "I was satisfied with the outcome and I'm confident that it will all settle down very soon." On the other hand, neither Bill Bishop, the RFU president (who tried to dissuade Brittle from standing), nor Jeavons-Fellows was present at Twickenham yesterday as would normally have been the case hitherto. Next up for Brittle is to meet members of the RFU commission on Thursday to discuss their report.

The RFU is readying itself to fight a definitive legal action on the International Board's 180-day residential requirement for players moving countries. Legal advice taken by the union runs counter to that given to the IB as it affects the players of the home unions as well as other European Union nationals.

"All our advice is that it would not be sustainable," Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said at Twickenham yesterday. "It would be a restraint of trade on a professional moving from one country to another." The RFU is hoping the home unions and others in the EU will reach mutual agreement in accordance with the IB's get-out clause. As it is, there will be no bar on Nick Popplewell, the Ireland prop, turning out for Newcastle against Harlequins in the Pilkington Cup on Saturday.