Leading clubs to break from RFU

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Rugby Union

The First and Second Division clubs have thrown the English game into turmoil by deciding to break away from the Rugby Football Union, which could put paid to the Five Nations' Championship in its current form.

The English Professional Clubs, under whose aegis the top 24 clubs operate, will be giving Twickenham a season's notice of their intent and hope to fulfil their fixture commitments this year, but from September 1997 they will no longer be answerable to the game's governing body in this country.

The RFU responded with a statement that expressed disappointment and surprise at Epruc's move "as its representatives are still in the process of negotiating the final points of an agreement, the majority of which has already been settled."

It added: "The RFU does not wish the senior clubs to break away from the Union, and therefore seeks further clarification for the reasons behind the Epruc statement."

Epruc expressed frustration at slow progress in the negotiations. Donald Kerr, their chairman, said: "The decision has been taken in the light of widespread dismay among club men. The move was made reluctantly, for senior club representatives had hoped to embrace the new world of professionalism hand in hand with the RFU hierarchy. The whole organisation at Twickenham is paralysed by the in-fighting between rival parties. We cannot sit back and wait not knowing when that may or not be resolved. We have to embrace professionalism and make our plans."

The Epruc move will wreck the RFU and the British game. It could have as far-reaching consequences as the schism 101 years ago that gave birth to rugby league, a divide that has only just been bridged. The split, also largely along north-south lines, could leave the game with an elite group of professional clubs, while the bulk of the game retains amateurism and allegiance to the RFU. That would mean the RFU was unable to call on the best players to play for England.

There is certain to be a call for a Special General Meeting of the RFU. Clubs in the north are rumoured to have provided the requisite number of signatures for a petition which is likely to put a motion of no confidence before the delegates and call for the resignation at least of the team who negotiated the sale of exclusive broadcasting rights to BSkyB for pounds 87.5m over five years at the likely cost to England of their place in the Five Nations.

The north see Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the executive, as the champion of their cause and have also gained the backing of the former England and Lions players Fran Cotton and Bill Beaumont, who captained England to the Grand Slam in 1980.

The English split could well be copied in other home unions. The Welsh clubs are said to be very unhappy with the Welsh . Epruc is due to meet representatives of the Welsh clubs today. Scottish clubs, too, are said to be disaffected.

The breakaway stems from a series of meetings this week. On Tuesday, English First Division Rugby met Epruc representatives at Northampton and their mood was militant. On Wednesday, it was the turn of English Second Division Rugby - again with Epruc - this time in Coventry. Again their decision to break away was unanimous.

Yesterday the seal of approval was provided by the money men, such as Sir John Hall, who have between them put some pounds 30m into the game over the last 12 months or so.

Essentially, the clubs want a certain amount of autonomy, to which the RFU had agreed according to a resolution drawn up between the two sides on 24 May. That left some outstanding issues, including the clubs' desire to sort out their own sponsorship for the Leagues. Courage had agreed to pull out of the top two divisions and concentrate their cash on the remainder, but, according to Epruc, the RFU blocked that.

Epruc claim they cannot fund domestic club rugby on pounds 300,000 a year for the First Division and pounds 100,000 for the Second, the cash they are due to receive from the BSkyB deal. As one senior club figure said: "The Division One clubs already receive pounds 120,000 from Sky, so the increase is a net pounds 180,000. The RFU are prepared to throw pounds 10m at the other unions and another pounds 10m to safeguard the Five Nations, yet they are not prepared to put a penny into club rugby."

The last straw for the clubs was news that the pounds 2.5m they were told they could expect to share from the Heineken European Cup has been reduced to pounds 1.5m because the organisers, European Rugby Cup Ltd, had failed to find a broadcaster or a sponsor for the second tier of the competition, the European Conference and so have funded that from the original prize pot.

Although some clubs will have to refer the breakaway to their membership, once the formalities have been observed it is expected that the clubs will give the RFU a season's notice. If that is unacceptable they could go it alone a lot sooner, bringing the game to a standstill.

What this means for rugby union

l Five Nations Championship not viable in its present form

l 1999 World Cup in doubt, therefore more loss of vital revenue

l BSkyB deal now in balance

l A number of clubs who were relying on a share of the BSkyB cash and could now go to the wall

l The RFU has a pounds 35m debt on Twickenham's new stands and faces potential legal action from debenture holders, who could see no international rugby at Twickenham

l Possible end of Courage League this season, with clubs having to reorganise fixtures, find new sponsors and a broadcasting deal

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