Major clubs threaten to break away

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

English rugby union was in further disarray last night as the major clubs held a hastily convened emergency meeting in London which will push ahead with professionalism even though it has now become more likely to mean breaking away from the Rugby Football Union.

Yesterday the 11 clubs which form English First Division Rugby Ltd made it clear that if the RFU membership reimposes amateurism, as threatened when a second special general meeting is held within the next six weeks, they would have no alternative but to secede. Professionalism has already gone too far.

This declaration follows the chaotic scenes at the special meeting held in Birmingham on Sunday when first the RFU executive's unanimous nominee to be its own chairman was easily beaten by a grass-roots candidate and second when the meeting adjourned itself so that there could be a formal debate and vote on the abandonment of amateurism after 125 years.

"We firmly believe in the professional game and do not believe it possible to go back," Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive and EFDR chairman, said at the conclusion of last night's meeting. "Furthermore, the professional game should be advanced by a body in which we have full trust and confidence. If that body turns out to be the RFU, then we see that as a positive move. But in the light of yesterday's events, we believe it remains to be seen if that is the case."

In the meantime, the union will use an independent body to analyse questionnaires it receives from clubs in response to the widely praised report of the RFU commission on professionalism which the first special general meeting declined to discuss. David Robinson, a senior RFU committee man, made it clear that if the membership then insists on untrammelled amateurism, England would have to withdraw from the International Board.

The temper of delegates representing the mass of the RFU's 2,000 or so clubs and affiliated bodies was clear by the end of Sunday's shambles, many at the International Convention Centre wanting no truck with professionalism at any level. Cliff Brittle, the new chairman and therefore the choice of most of them, now faces the unenviable task of dissuading them.

Yesterday he was back home on the Isle of Man after seeing off John Jeavons- Fellows by a landslide vote of 647-332. "There is an overwhelming desire to accept what the International Board announced in August, albeit the way they did it might have caused great problems," he said. "But the information I've got is that the general membership of the union accept a seamless game."

"Seamless" is RFU-speak for allowing every club to make its own choice about professionalism, and Brittle's remarks will come as a considerable relief to EFDR, which comprises the current First Division of the Courage Clubs' Championship plus Northampton, the Second Division leaders.

But if the worst came to the worst at the special meeting, the small clubs were left in no doubt last night of the consequences. "I don't think anybody, bottom-line, wants to break away, but if the junior end of the game forces the issue at a second special general meeting then there will be little alternative," Tony Russ, the Leicester rugby director, said.

The big clubs' concern is mixed with incredulity that the RFU has been unable to explain that for nearly all its membership the open game adopted by the IB will make no difference. "I just can't see what they have to fear from professionalism, because the amateur game will simply go on as before as it does in soccer and cricket and even rugby league," John Quin, the Bath secretary, said.

The fact that the England team, not to mention the rest of the world, are already professionals and that the likes of Bath and Leicester are already putting their own forms of professionalism in place ready for the end of the season makes the delay caused by the calling of the second meeting highly inconvenient.

"One upshot of the Birmingham meeting could be that the international players might be rather concerned at the turn of events and be prepared to throw in their lot with the clubs to protect their interests," David Tyler, Bristol's club administrator, said.

"There is no doubt that whoever controls the top players will control what happens at the top end of the game and if we get them on board with us we can then get on to television and sponsors with a clearly defined and attractive product.

"We haven't got time to wait for another special meeting because we are talking about next season and the issue is far too urgent to be left any longer."

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