Limited profit for clubs

Chris Rea claims English rugby is still firmly under establishment control
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The Independent Online
The most generous assessment of the truce reached last week between the Rugby Football Union and the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs was that the RFU's negotiating team had scraped a draw. Most commentators viewed it as an overwhelming victory for the clubs. One even hailed it as the final retreat of the old guard at Twickenham and a chance for the clubs to extend their influence over the game in England and beyond.

Throughout an increasingly bitter period of negotiation, the perception of the RFU represen-tatives as senile relics seeking to prevent progress into the brave new age of professionalism under Epruc's enlightened leadership was fuelled by a programme of misinformation. "In all but semantics," one correspondent said, "the clubs have won almost all their key demands." Here are the facts. Judge for yourself.

Epruc demanded full negotiating rights to their own television and sponsorship agreements for domestic, cross-border and European competitions in which they were involved without needing approval from the RFU

Agreement reached: Epruc will not, as widely reported, have the power to negotiate such deals. But they will be represented on the negotiating team, a very different matter, and will be signatories to the contracts.

Epruc did not want to make players available for any representative team other than the National XV.

Agreement reached: Players would be available for international and/or other representative matches for no fewer than seven and no more than eight weekends in the season. The structured season proposed by the RFU was also accepted in its entirety by the clubs.

Epruc demanded the clubs should retain primacy of contract for the players.

Agreement reached: Primacy of contract rests with the RFU. The clubs must recognise that England has first call on players for a maximum of eight weekends as stated in the RFU schedule. This means the clubs must release players for the Five Nations' Championship, additional internationals and divisional or other representative games.

Epruc said there must be no pre-conditions placed by the RFU on any relevant monies raised.

Agreement reached: The RFU recognise that monies derived from sponsorship and the media specifically relating to competitions in which only the Senior Clubs take part should be for the benefit ofthe participating clubs, less the necessary administrative fees, expenses, etc.

Epruc demanded the authority to make any changes they deemed necessary to the domestic league competitions.

Agreement reached: Clubs can only play in competitions approved by and administered through the RFU.

Epruc wanted power to change the structure of domestic competitions without RFU approval.

Agreement reached: The seamless principle as laid down by the RFU prevails.

Epruc demanded a First Division of 12 clubs.

Agreement reached: Subject to club approval, 12 clubs will compete in League One next season. Thereafter it will be reduced to 10 with clubs playing home and away. It will then be up to the clubs to decide whether four are to be relegated from League One next season and whether there are to be play-offs for promotion from League Two. Of the 12 League One clubs, only two, Saracens and West Hartlepool, both of whom would have been relegated this season, pressed for a 12-club league, and both coincidentally were represented on Epruc's negotiating team.

During the negotiations, Epruc dropped the following demands or threats: clubs to have the right to play big matches at Twickenham; League One to become a 12-club conference; no Epruc participation in RFU competitions next season; no Epruc participation in the official European Rugby Cup next season; fees for international and representative players from the RFU to be paid through Epruc and negotiated by them.

In conclusion, the RFU, far from meekly surrendering to the clubs, have retained control of finance, television and sponsorship, the structured season, domestic competitions, registration of players, and player availability. Game, set and match then to the RFU negotiators, but in reality this sorry tale has no winners. If the RFU had acted positively immediately after the decision last August to make the game professional, much of the bickering and hostility would have been avoided.

Next season England's club scene will be populated by players culled from all parts of the rugby-playing world, stifling the growth and development of home-nurtured talent and decimating the domestic game in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Television is seen as the saviour, but it is only a matter of time before the media moguls either change the game or change their minds about rugby's value as watchable entertainment.

The cost per hour of screening rugby is higher than any other sport covered by the BBC - twice as much as football and more than four times as much as cricket. Furthermore, the official viewing figures for club rugbyhave dropped significantly for BBC's Rugby Special at a time when the game has never had so much publicity, first from the World Cup and then the move to professionalism. It will be a long time yet, I fear, before rugby union is at peace with itself.

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