Players' threat to set up alternative England team

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The Independent Online
The Rugby Football Union was last night confronted with the possibility of an insurrection by its own England players if the other countries of the Five Nations proceed with their threat - now imminent as well as real - to remove the RFU from the Five Nations' Championship.

Martin Bayfield, the Lions lock who this season became one of the first full-time rugby union professionals, issued the warning on behalf of his team-mates after representatives of Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France had deliberately excluded the English from a late-night meeting at a Heathrow hotel while they plotted their strategy.

First, it became clear that the other countries were prepared to exclude England from a four-nation competition to be played home and away each season because of the RFU's insistence on breaking the tradition of the home unions' jointly negotiating their Five Nations television contract.

Then it became clear that, in those circumstances, the England players would set themselves up independently, ready to play on once the new TV contract comes into force at the start of the 1997-98 season.

"If the RFU tried to prevent us from playing rugby, then I wouldn't be surprised if the players got together and said we will play as England but under another banner," Bayfield said. "The RFU have to be careful that they don't take away from the players their aims and ambitions. The players will play for England no matter who is calling the shots. We want to play for England and we want to play Five Nations rugby."

In Bayfield's case this desire is exacerbated by the loss of his England place this season at the age of 29. With the RFU's other dispute with the senior clubs still unresolved, a clubs' breakaway could lead to an alternative England team.

Indeed, Epruc, the English clubs' umbrella organisation, is understood to be on the point of announcing it has agreed its own contracts with the England players - with the appropriate release clauses for international matches - so the RFU's position is weakening almost daily.

"You are taking away the reason why people play rugby," Bayfield said. "I am a professional player now. If someone turned round and said 'you can't play Five Nations rugby any more' and someone says we are setting something up whereby you can play and it's recognised by the other unions, then I would play for them."

Yesterday Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, was trying to persuade the other home unions that individually negotiated TV contracts would be good for everyone. He had hoped BSkyB's separate five-year offers - thought to be pounds 61m to England and roughly the same to the others put together - would already have done this for him.

"I am sure that, once they can see what offers are put on the table, we can come to some compromise, but we are duty-bound to look after our own country's interests as best we can without being selfish or greedy," Hallett said, ignoring the fact that Sky's various offers are already on the table and have therefore been seen.

"England are trying to sell something they don't own," Ray Williams, one of the Welsh representatives, said last night. "If England refuse to climb down we either have to carry out our threat not to play them or shut up. It has to be equal shares or nothing."

Hallett believes alternative internationals would be available to England even though the southern-hemisphere countries have told the RFU that their post-Christmas fixture lists are too congested. The situation is further complicated by the clubs' resolve to run their own European competitions next season.

One of them, Leicester, have agreed contracts with the England forwards Martin Johnson and Neil Back to add to those of their front-row forwards and the new signings Austin Healey and Craig Joiner. However, Niall Malone, Richie Robinson, Wayne Kilford, Jamie Hamilton, Chris Tarbuck, Aadel Kardooni and Andy McAdam are being courted by other clubs.

n Neil Back will face an RFU disciplinary committee after his alleged push on the referee at the end of Saturday's Pilkington Cup final.