Missed chances for a united Europe

Chris Rea believes the RFU's surrender to clubs will damage the game
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The Independent Online
OF ALL the packages that dropped through the letterbox during the holidays none was more surprising than the Yuletide bundle from the Rugby Football Union containing Dudley Wood's letter supporting John Jeavons- Fellows' candidacy for the critically important position as chairman of the executive committee. Wood, the fiercest of the dinosaurs, the last man at the barricades of amateurism promoting the cause of someone who, before the mass outing in Paris last September, was considered by the more traditional elements to be a closet professional? Surely some mistake. But this was no festive hangover - those pigs really were airborne.

If that glowing testimonial tells us something about Dudley Wood it says much more about the state of panic sweeping headquarters. Should Jeavons- Fellows, the RFU's own nominee for the post, fail in his attempt to become chairman, the game in England will find itself in the most unholy pickle. It would then be at the mercy of Cliff Brittle, a former coach of Staffordshire who, despite several attempts, has never made it to the executive and who is campaigning on the county ticket, seeking to restore the County Championship to its former position and the game to its amateur roots.

For all I know Brittle may be an excellent choice and might even prove to be an inspiring chairman. But in the light of recent events, and given the fragile truce between the senior clubs and the RFU, the very idea that this steering committee might be driven by an inhabitant of Jurassic Park, and one of its lesser species at that, is causing apoplexy at Twickenham.

The RFU have themselves contributed to this unhappy and unhealthy state of affairs by their almost total capitulation to the senior clubs. In the RFU's defence they, along with just about everyone else, could not have foreseen the arrival outside the ramparts of Sir John Hall and his troop of sugar daddies, although it was inevitable that some of those clubs who had been so swiftly thrown to the wolves with no visible means of support would be gobbled up. Nevertheless, having been railroaded by the leading clubs, the RFU's resolve crumbled.

This is why England will make their long-awaited entry into Europe next season with clubs rather than divisions, despite the RFU's acknowledgement that the latter are the obvious representatives. The whole point of a European competition was that it would improve our standards at the highest levels and that it would prepare and equip our players more effectively for international rugby. The Divisional Championship had very few supporters towards the end of its fitful existence, and over the years there was no one more vociferously critical of it than your correspondent, but the concept of divisional sides as the stepping stone between club and country is a sound one. If ever an event was designed for the divisions it is this European tournament, yet the RFU have meekly surrendered to pressure from the clubs.

The Scots, canny pragmatists that they are, have fought what would seem to be a successful rearguard action against their clubs who, like their counterparts in England, were in mutinous mood when they heard of the SRU's plans to choose the districts for Europe. The Scots, however, know full well that even the leading clubs could not possibly stand the intensity of European competition. They would risk humiliation, and that in turn could jeopardise Scotland's numerical representation in Europe in future seasons. The only chance of survival is with the districts, a position the clubs north of the border now appear to accept, although if the haemorrhaging of players to south of the border continues at the present rate, the only side capable of holding its own in the tournament would be the Scottish Exiles.

Regrettably, the competition itself has been hijacked by the overwhelming need to generate additional revenue from television rights and sponsorship to pay for professionalism, and although today's inaugural final between Cardiff and Toulouse at the National Stadium promises to be enthusiastically supported and passionately contested, the competition has suffered this season from being conceived in such haste.

It has come off the drawing board a year too soon, which is why England and Scotland, despite the mauling they have taken in various sections of the media and from other national administrations, were quite right to delay their entry. There were far too many built-in rough edges which even now cannot be smoothed out in time for next season.

What no one has apparently considered, for example, is BSkyB's exclusive contract to screen English club rugby which, unless special dispensation can be granted, would restrict ITV in their live coverage of English clubs playing in Europe. Then there is the format which, far from uniting Europe, is likely to tear it asunder unless a better accommodation can be reached to give a fair representation to the lesser countries. But more teams would inevitably mean more matches and further strain on what is an already overcrowded schedule. Still, few can doubt the worthiness of such a tournament or the fact that this afternoon's final in Cardiff will be the first of many.