Isolation looms for England

Time running out for the RFU as other Home Unions head for new summit to consider latest proposals; Paul Trow finds South Africans sceptical over another union 'world cup'
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Riaan Oberholzer, the chief executive of the South African Rugby Football Union, is a puzzled man. "If the game's leading countries all played each other in the same tournament every year, what would be the point of having a World Cup?"

His question has been on the lips of rugby followers ever since the future of the Five Nations' Championship fell under a cloud when England unveiled their plans to moonlight with BSkyB.

Once the squabble erupted, though, one particular sub-text soon became increasingly fashionable. It runs like this: If England, the reigning champions and winners of three Grand Slams in the last six seasons, are banished from a tournament they are now in the habit of dominating, then there is something bigger and better in the form of a satellite-financed contest with the southern hemisphere rugby nations lined up in its place.

But Oberholzer who is well placed to gauge the validity of this view, is not so sure. "If South Africa, Australia and New Zealand played England and France every year, the sense of occasion would soon go out of such a series," he said. "It would be like an annual World Cup, and that wouldn't be too much of a draw after a while. I certainly know of no plans to create such a tournament.

"Surely, it would be better for the winners of our Tri-Nations series to play the Five Nations champions each year on a home-and-away basis, and perhaps for the leading club or provincial sides in Europe to play against the Super 12 winners."

Oberholzer's words suggest that England would be ill-advised not to take seriously their threatened ejection by Ireland, Scotland and Wales from the world's oldest tournament. In some circles, though, the stance taken by the Celts over the Rugby Football Union's decision to sign a five-year, pounds 87.5m deal with BSkyB is dismissed as part of some arcane game of bluff and double bluff.

"I think we will play international rugby next season whether it's in the Five Nations or with the southern hemisphere countries," said the England prop Jason Leonard last week. "In some respects we'd like to have the best of both worlds but if we can't play in the Five Nations then there will be opportunities with the southern hemisphere, so I don't think our negotiators should compromise too much."

That view was echoed by the Wasps flanker Lawrence Dallaglio, widely tipped as the next England captain. "There's a bit of concern among the players as to what's going on, but our message to our officials is 'don't panic'," he said. "We've been advised there will be a satisfactory resolution to this dispute."

Following last week's confidential message from the RFU president, John Richardson, to his Home Union counterparts - Scotland's Fred McLeod, Tasker Watkins of Wales and Ireland's Robert Deacy - England's Five Nations prospects look bleak.

With less than six months to go before the start of the 1997 championship, the feeling is growing that England are heading for international isolation, or at best a sort of twilight zone involving games against the likes of Italy and Romania.

Certainly, BSkyB profess to have no hidden southern hemisphere agendas and say that whatever happens on the international front, they are more than happy with the overall package they are buying from the RFU, especially the club competitions.

Despite overturning the principle of collective bargaining, England clearly hope that Richardson's missive, which apparently contains four fresh concessions, will pull the other Home Unions round, especially as pounds 96m is earmarked for them in the BSkyB deal.

Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said: "We have more mouths to feed in England. If you look at it pro rata, pounds 1m goes an awful lot further in the other three countries than it does in England. We have 2,000 clubs and 3,000 rugby playing schools - 10 times as many as in Ireland for instance - and safety insurance and youth development each cost seven-figure sums alone. But we're not out to hurt Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Indeed, it's in our interests to ensure that the game stays healthy in those countries and that they hold on to their home-grown players. We hope the latest proposals will show them that we're really quite close together."

Hallett should have a good idea early this week whether his optimism is well placed. Tom Kiernan, the chairman of the Five Nations Committee, has called a meeting of the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and French representatives at a secret location tomorrow night. "We feel the RFU's latest suggestions deserve a swift response," he said. "They know where we stand and we would aim to contact them the day after our meeting. After all, time is not on our side." Alas, it's beginning to look as though no one is on England's side.