RFU blueprint to move Five Nations' to May

UNION AT THE CROSSROADS: Commission unveils plans for new era
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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

The entire structure of European - never mind English - rugby union will be redesigned if the Rugby Football Union has its way. Yesterday the RFU's commission on professionalism produced a radical blueprint for the new era which, most strikingly, would shift the Five Nations' Championship in its entirety to May from January, February and March.

With the professional season to be extended into August at one end and May at the other, the rest of it is divided into bite-sized chunks one of which accommodates an enlarged European clubs' tournament to be played on weekends during the autumn.

The RFU envisages a four-strong English representation out of 16 in Europe, with the remaining six clubs in the domestic First Division partici- pating in an Anglo-Welsh competition at the same time.

The First Division would take place before and after, with space also available for incoming international and provincial sides, the latter allowing for a continuation of the divisions but not in a Divisional Championship. The present Second, Third and Fourth Divisions would be adapted into two divisions of 14, the new Third having to be reduced from an initial 16 at the end of next season.

Twickenham's ambitious ideas are really no more than a series of debating points or bargaining positions where they impinge on relations with other unions. The Five Nations' committee, for instance, will be incredulous at the May proposal, if only because it imagined it had addressed the issue by moving the Championship back a fortnight from 1997.

Then there is the thorny question of the European Rugby Cup, which has been launched in the past fortnight not only without English involvement but also with persistent English denigration. Rela- tions within the five nations are such that the RFU has an overwhelming hearts-and-minds campaign to win before it can hope to have its plans accepted.

The underlying agenda appears to be dictated by television - which is not necessarily a bad thing, since the funding of professionalism is bound to rely in large measure on how much governing bodies can extract for broadcasting rights. The English seasonal format could now be sold in one big, multi-million pound block or broken down into its constituent parts.

Either way, the RFU has been quietly talking to broadcasters and, just for starters, has come up with a figure of at least double the pounds 20m or so three-year deal already struck with ITV for the nascent European Cup. The union is earnestly hoping that this sort of money will talk.

Other aspects of the commission's proposals are as disclosed in last Saturday's Independent. The moratorium on professionalism will be lifted once this season is over and the 120-day transfer qualification period reduced to a nominal seven days. In the meantime clubs are at liberty to negotiate contracts pending the end of the moratorium.

This season's only active contract will be the England one, with Cellnet due to announce today the sponsorship that will pay the squad for their season's work beginning with the South Africa match at Twickenham on Saturday week. Ultimately, after a period of dovetailing national and club contracts, the union envisages a time when players will be subject only to club contracts with the necessary international commitment written in.

This is of no assistance to Rob Andrew in his quest to put a new Newcastle team on the pitch but the restructuring of the top divisions will entail the absence of relegation this season and so secure Newcastle's place in the Second Division. The National Clubs' Association is likely to ratify this when it meets today.

Professional rugby has forced the RFU reluctantly to adopt a free passage from rugby league into English rugby union and a rapid demise of the iniquitous restrictions on the number of British and Irish players free to play at English clubs. An independent disciplinary panel will be established to judge offenders in the National League.

Transferring players will be permitted to negotiate signing-on fees but not percentages of transfer fees, and there will be a tribunal to rule on disputed transfers. Non-contracted players from lower-league clubs who sign contracts with National League clubs will earn their original clubs the princely consideration of pounds 100.

The commission also contemplated the administration of the RFU, recommending a restructuring of the executive so that it changed its name to board of management and its composition so that it more adequately reflected the professional end of the game. However, the final word will be had by the non-professionals at a special general meeting of the 2,200 clubs in RFU membership, now deferred to the new year.

Main proposals of commission

n Moratorium on professionalism and 120-day registration period stay until the end of this season.

n Five Nations tournament to be put back to May.

n Players will not be entitled to percentage of transfer fees, but may negotiate a signing-on fee.

n Club contracts can be negotiated now pending end of moratorium.

n Leagues restructured from next season: First Division, 10 teams; Second Division 14; Third Division, 16.

n Top four clubs in First Division to take part in European tournament.

n Remaining six First Division clubs to take part in an Anglo-Welsh tournament.

n From next season registration to be seven days for top three leagues.

n Registration to be 30 days for all other Leagues from 1996-97.

n Player qualification: free passage from rugby league.

n Restrictions on other home union internationals in English clubs lifted.

n Discipline: an independent panel to be set up.

n Players will in future be innocent until proved guilty; therefore no more automatic suspension when sent off.

n RFU to be restructured. Committee to be renamed Council as per Bishop report.

n RFU executive to comprise seven professionals and seven amateurs with present secretary, Tony Hallett, in the chair and holding casting vote.

n Football-style pre-season Charity Shield to be staged in August between English and Welsh champions and cup winners. May begin in 1996.

n Divisional Championship to be scrapped; County Championship stays.

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