RFU and top clubs no nearer to agreement

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

English rugby's club-v-country stand-off - between the increasingly militant leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union over which has primacy in the newly professionalised game - was no closer to solution last night after the mutually antagonistic parties had held a critical meeting in London.

As it had been billed by the clubs as the most important of the many that have been held this season, it is fair to say that the inability to reach any sort of agreement beyond meeting yet again next week amounts to a crisis. The last resort for the clubs would be to break away from the body which has governed English rugby for 125 years.

The trouble now is that in trying to administer the new dispensation to everyone's satisfaction, the RFU is in fact satisfying no one. On the one hand it is being pulled one way by the major clubs who want a free hand to manage their own professional affairs. On the other, the broad mass of the union's 2,000-plus membership, many as hostile to professionalism as they would be to a disease, will have another chance to air their diametrically different grievances at Sunday's second special general meeting in Birmingham.

Indeed it is only then, by leave of the broad mass, that the RFU will have formally abandoned amateurism. Even so, the First and Second Division club representatives who met RFU officials including the new executive chairman, Cliff Brittle, at the East India Club have been proceeding on the basis that once this season ends they will have to get on with paying their players.

Yesterday's post-prandial meeting went on for the best part of six hours without getting anywhere. The one thing that was agreed was a joint statement which said next to nothing: "A constructive and frank meeting took place today between the Rugby Football Union and its top clubs. They have agreed to meet again next week."

In diplomatic circles "frank" is usually taken to mean something rather more discordant so, for the time being at least, it looks as if Brittle's publicly stated ambition of forging unity throughout the RFU is nowhere near being fulfilled.

There is, for instance, serious disagreement between clubs and union over television rights from next season's European Cup when England enters for the first time, as well as over which professional contract - country or club - should have precedence.

In addition, the Courage Championship First Division voted 9-1 to abandon relegation for this season, which with the addition of the two promoted clubs would create a 12-club division. That would be neatly symmetrical for Anglo-Welsh purposes with the Heineken League First Division and would unavoidably entail the previous taboo of compulsory midweek rugby.

Rosslyn Park Sevens, page 23