Peace that could fall to pieces

Chris Hewett warns that there are traumas ahead after Five Nations triumph
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The Independent Online
"Peace in our time," Colin Herridge, treasurer of the Rugby Football Union, declared as he flourished the single piece of paper bearing tidings of the 11th-hour agreement between England and her impoverished Five Nations cousins in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Dangerous words, as Neville Chamberlaindiscovered.

The trouble with fighting a war on two fronts is that while you are in a kiss-and-make-up situation with one set of enemies, the other lot are sharpening knives behind your back. If the RFU think they are home and dry after Thursday night's international armistice with the Celts, they can think again.

This week, the RFU chief executive, Cliff Brittle, and the rest of the Twickenham heavy mob will attempt to strike a final, binding deal with the mutinous senior English clubs, who have already issued a formal declaration of independence taking effect next May. The RFU will sit down at the table in confident mood after successfully burning the midnight oil on the Five Nations issue; certainly, Brittle was in a bullish frame of mind as he looked forward to the next round of hard bargaining with Epruc, the high- powered pressure group representing the interests of clubs in the top two divisions of the Courage League.

"Because of the Five Nations talks, I've taken a back seat on the Epruc front in recent weeks," he said. "I've dedicated the last month to reaching an agreement on the international situation, which was terribly important for the future of the game. But agreement with the clubs is also of extreme importance and I'm keen to address that immediately. While I'm confident progress can be made, I must reiterate that the RFU are the governing body of the game in England and we must retain sufficient controls to enable us to continue to govern."

But the plain fact is that the clubs, now operating from a more secure financial base as a result of the pounds 22.5m guaranteed them over five years under the terms of the BSkyB television deal, will settle for nothing less than autonomous control of their own domestic and European competitions. They want to negotiate their own television and sponsorship arrangements - they insist they can come up with far more lucrative deals by acting alone, claiming they have big backers already in place - and are not prepared to allow the purse strings to remain in the hands of the RFU.

For supporting evidence, they point to the fact that two of this season's three new competitions - the European Conference and the Anglo-Welsh tournament - remain unsponsored. The Anglo-Welsh is scheduled to start this week, with the double English champions Bath planning union debuts for big-name league signings Henry Paul and Jason Robinson in their match with Swansea on Wednesday night. At a meeting of clubs from both sides of the Severn Bridge 10 days ago, delegates voted to back the competition despite its obvious financial difficulties.

But the Conference, a second-tier Continental tournament involving teams from seven countries scheduled to kick off on 12 October, is by no means a definite starter. Neither, astonishingly, is the top-rank European Cup, sponsored by Heineken and also due to start next month. No English side has signed a participation agreement and while the matches remain on the Bath, Leicester, Harlequins and Wasps fixture lists, serious commercial questions have yet to be answered.

It was against this background of uncertainty that Epruc upped the ante last week by masterminding the England players' boycott of the national squad session at Bisham Abbey. "It's now a question of forcing the issue," explained the Bristol administrator David Tyler. "We simply can't allow this to drag on for another year. If it isn't settled, we would be prepared to field an alternative national team which would include the current first-choice players, all of whom are contracted to the clubs."

The endgame for Epruc - at least for moderates like Donald Kerr of Harlequins, the organisation's chairman - is based on the present relationship between the Premiership clubs and the Football Association. Indeed, Epruc insiders have been in close contact with Rick Parry, the Premiership chief executive.

"That is very much the template we are using," Tyler confirmed. "It doesn't matter to us if the RFU remain a governing body and retain the vast majority of international monies and use them to finance the non- professional game. But we need to be allowed to do our own thing; I fully understand the RFU's fear of entrepreneurs taking over the game in their own interests, but Twickenham should remember that most of us involved with Epruc have been in rugby for many years and want to see professionalism work for the good of everyone involved."

If the RFU fail to appease the clubs, the more hawkish elements in Epruc are prepared for a fight to the finish. The heavy investors - Sir John Hall at Newcastle, Ashley Levett at Richmond, Nigel Wray at Saracens and a select band of fellow travellers - have not chipped in their millions for the fun of it. These hard-headed businessmen are used to getting their own way.

The last time Brittle locked horns with the clubs towards the end of last season, the air was blue and the carpet blood-red. If we get more of the same next week, those who play their games in the boardroom rather than on the pitch could make the last nine months seem positively diplomatic.

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