Nations united on England sanctions

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England's hope of Five Nations rugby reconciliation remains distant after it was claimed yesterday that agreement between the feuding factions is nowhere near being reached.

As England's top brass studied a faxed response from the other three home unions to their most recent peace proposals, Fred McLeod, Scotland's representative on the Five Nations committee, insisted that a resolution of the long-running dispute over England's decision to sign a television deal with BSkyB was not imminent.

"I don't want to put a damper on progress, but it would be quite wrong to say the two parties are close to reaching agreement," McLeod said. "That is a big misconception. We would not have spent six hours talking on Monday had we been close."

McLeod slated reports, allegedly emanating from within the Rugby Football Union, that a peace deal was around the corner. "If the quotes I've read this week from a so-called 'RFU insider' are genuinely from an insider, they're not accurate," he said. ."They don't fully reflect the position and they are misleading to the general public and to the rugby world at large."

England's apparent insistence on sticking with their solo contract with BSkyB remains the obstacle to progress. Despite twice submitting what are believed to be compromises, their erstwhile colleagues appear as unimpressed as ever.

"It cannot go on like this," insisted McLeod. "If England have not got anything new to offer, that's it. We have got to get a resolution. If the matter is not sorted out in the next week or two, alternative plans have to be put in place.

"Everybody can see that the season is almost upon us and it needs to be structured. We want England in the Five Nations, but not on the present terms."

Tom Kiernan, chairman of the Five Nations committee, joined McLeod in urging a hasty resolution to the summer-long feud. "We have had sufficient time to debate this matter," he said, "and while I remain neither optimistic nor pessimistic as to the outcome, an outcome there must be - certainly before the end of the month."

England's negotiating team elected to keep their own counsel yesterday. "We have no timetable for responding to the home unions' letter," an RFU spokesman said. "We are considering it carefully."

It remains to be seen how the BBC will react should England be excluded. The rights to the 1997 championship belong to Auntie, not BSkyB, whose five-year contract does not begin until March.

However, even were the eventual decision to go against England, the future might not be all grim. Australia are reportedly ready to propose annual home and away matches against Jack Rowell's team.

The Aussies are required, under their contract with Channel Seven, to play six Tests at home each season. And a July date Down Under, with a return at Twickenham in November, has been mooted.