On the gravy train to disaster

Chris Rea argues that the narrow ambition of the clubs must now be thwarted
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The Independent Online
The only surprise in the marathon struggle for control of rugby union in England is that there should be any support left for Epruc. The English Professional Rugby Union Clubs are incapable of organising a pub crawl for Gazza, much less a sport as complex as rugby. Throughout their monotonous and protracted battle with the Rugby Football Union, they have displayed a contempt for authority and an ignorance of the game's traditions, which not even the onset of professionalism can transcend.

Their proclamations last week after the collapse of talks with the RFU confirm their hopeless position. So they won't be breaking away from the union. Big deal. The plain truth is that there is nowhere for them to break away to. The clubs in Scotland, Ireland and Wales have settled their differences with their unions. Television is not interested and neither, if the truth be told, are the supporters.

The season is barely two months old yet already we are seeing the devastating effects of Epruc's stance, which not even lottery-scale handouts from the RFU could begin to satisfy. Orrell, Sale, Bristol and Gloucester - the very backbone of club rugby in England - are in serious financial difficulties. Even those clubs enjoying the patronage of wealthy backers and, for the moment, insulated against hardship, must be increasingly concerned for their future.

In their last two home matches Harlequins, with an annual wage bill of at least pounds 1.5m, attracted a combined total of around 8,000 spectators. There were no more than 5,000 for Wasps' European Cup game against Cardiff and, most ominous of all, fewer than 5,000 turned out at Welford Road last week to watch Leicester play the Scottish Borders. The numbers simply do not add up, yet Epruc are continuing blithely on, talking of legal action against the RFU. To what possible end, and with whose money?

Epruc have brazenly used their sole asset, the players, as the battering rams in their attempts to break down the RFU's resistance. There have been times during the past months when they have come perilously close to succeeding. Had the RFU's executive committee not been forced to accept a new chairman following the untimely death of Peter Bromage, the chances are that Epruc, with men like Sir John Hall and Donald Kerr at the helm, would now be in control.

If there have been personality problems throughout this rotten business they have been caused not by the frequently vilified Cliff Brittle, but by the negotiators on the other side of the table, and the sooner they make room for men with a sense of realism and a proper understanding of rugby, the more swiftly a reasonable accommodation will be reached.

Not only have Epruc damaged rugby in England by their extravagances, they have encouraged the emaciation of the domestic game elsewhere, principally in Scotland and Ireland. And for what? The profit and advancement of a handful of English clubs.

Epruc's latest stand is over the release of players for Divisional matches. No one has been more critical than I of the Divisional Championship. It was a commercial wasteland. On the other hand only the most blinkered could fail to recognise the potential of the concept as a bridge between club and international rugby. If England are to derive maximum benefit from European competition, there is no question that they should be represented at the top level by the Divisions and not by three or four clubs, each carrying a sizeable contingent of non-English players.

There is little advantage to England, for example, from having Harlequins play in the European Cup. Yet it is only by playing in Europe that clubs like Harlequins can fund their spiralling bills and can thereby afford to recruit yet more high-quality players from abroad. At the present rate it won't be long before the top tier of English club rugby becomes a self- perpetuating elite competing in a European super league with a diminishing band of players qualified to play for England.

This is not, as many are suggesting, a side issue. It lies at the heart of the struggle for control of the game. One devoutly hopes that Brittle and his negotiating team will not suffer a collective brain storm and that Epruc will have to yield on this, as they have done on almost everything else.

The latest document produced by the RFU is both enlightened and generous, some would say to a fault, making as it does provision for a settlement to the clubs which, projected over five years, would be in excess of pounds 50m. Even the pounds 200,000 on offer to wind up Epruc would be channelled back to the clubs as restitution for the moneys levied on them by the body which claims to represent their best interest.

Unlike in football, the clubs cannot exist in isolation from or without the financial support of the governing body, and Sir John Hall's boast that the international game would wane as the clubs waxed in power and status is hot air. It is the end of the line for Epruc and it is high time that a number of their passengers switched to another gravy train.

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