RFU cites congestion for promotion change

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The ambitious wannabes of English rugby may not have squeezed all they wanted from the Rugby Football Union during the last few months of committee room conflict, but they won a hugely significant battle yesterday when the governing body agreed to change tack once again on the vexed issue of Courage League promotion.

After intense lobbying from cash-driven Second Division clubs, Newcastle, Richmond and Bedford were all involved, RFU officials finally agreed to promote two sides into the First Division. The move means four teams must now make the drop into the Second Division to allow a 10-club top flight next season.

Originally, the RFU had insisted on a single promotion place embellished by a play-off between the Second Division runners-up and the club finishing ninth in the First Division. But yesterday Tony Hallett, the RFU Secretary who has spent most of the year arguing the toss with big-money power-brokers like Sir John Hall of Newcastle, pointed to fixture congestion at the end of the season as the main reason for abandoning the play-off idea. However, newly vulnerable clubs including Gloucester and Bristol were less than impressed by the RFU's latest exercise in goal-post shifting.

Dave Tyler, Bristol's general manager, said: "This is wholly typical of the RFU. They are talking about reconciliation and working together with the clubs but this is contrary to all agreements.You cannot change the rules half way through season."

Last season, the RFU waited until the League programme had been completed before deciding against relegating the bottom two First Division clubs, West Hartlepool and Saracens. They also reprieved Bedford by ruling that no side should drop from the Second Division into the Third. Ironically, Bedford are now challenging hard at the other end of the table.

Yesterday's announcement adds enormous spice to this weekend's West Country derby between Bristol and Gloucester, the two most obvious candidates for the fourth relegation place. Orrell, West Hartlepool and London Irish are hot favourites to make up the bottom three.

Despite the odd hiccup, Newcastle and Richmond are expected to claim the two promotion spots. Both clubs spent unprecedented amounts of money during the summer on new personnel in an effort to accelerate their progress - a move that now looks certain to pay substantial dividends.