RFU develops attack against Packer circus

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The Independent Online
Senior England players will meet representatives of the Rugby Football Union in London's West End today for discussions which could determine the future governance of European, let alone English, rugby.

This is no exaggeration, England being decisive to the viability of the northern end of any global professional rugby union circus. But "could" is also a heavy conditional because, according to one influential RFU figure, the funny-money undertakings - up to pounds 140,000 each per annum - by an Australian group entitled World Rugby Championship will not be worth the paper they are written on.

So when the players - expected to be Carling, Andrew, Moore and Rodber - sit down with Malcolm Phillips, chairman of the union's players' working party, they will not only be presented with a guaranteed RFU package worth a minimum of pounds 30,000 a man for the next season but also warned off WRC and its entrepreneurial masters, Kerry Packer and Ross Turnbull.

John Jeavons-Fellows, RFU competition chairman and International Rugby Board representative, left London yesterday for the second Bledisloe Cup Test in Sydney on Saturday and to discuss Packer with other national administrators. "I am perfectly relaxed about it," he said from the Heathrow airport departure lounge.

"I've seen the document that is supposed to be promoting this and I've seen the contract they are circulating, and you would have to be mad to sign. It is completely one-sided and says if WRC fails to deliver the money the contract is null and void. Where on earth would that leave the players?

"They have to find at least $100m (pounds 65m) by November; they haven't got it, nor could they get it. It is dependent on television. He [Packer] has no chance of the northern rights and the southern hemisphere is tied up, so who else is going to do it? Will they put it on Eurosport between the lorry racing and the mud-wrestling? The whole thing has so many holes in it it's not true.

"They would have no access to established rugby grounds, but to support the viability of this circus - which is exactly what it is - they are quoting Five Nations gates, using the figures for Twickenham, the Arms Park and the rest, and even using the merchandising revenue the RFU takes from the Twickenham shop. It's a farce."

Jeavons-Fellows' remarks amount to a pre-emptive strike against players, the extent of whose greater earning power in traditional rugby union - now certain to go open, or officially non-amateur, when the IRB meets next month - has become dependent on the credibility of the Packer alternative.

However, Colin Herridge, the committee man who has been acting as middleman between the RFU and its players, advised against expecting any immediate resolution. "People are tending to feel we are going to hold up a piece of paper and say 'peace in our time' but we don't necessarily see it that way," he said.

So Phillips, who really did play for nothing when he was an England centre 31 years ago, will not be flourishing any pieces of paper, not while the worldwide situation remains so unclear. "If you're not totally confused, you're not adequately informed," Herridge said.

"It's being said that these players can earn pounds 100,000 a year and that there would be 900 worldwide. My arithmetic makes that pounds 90m. If you add all the other on-costs you are well over pounds 100m.

"In order to have that sort of money you have to have substantial TV deals. We understand there isn't one TV deal in place, so we are sceptical that this could even get off the ground."

While the RFU is preparing to canvass players' views by means of a questionnaire, the senior men believe they are in a such a strong bargaining position that they can bide their time. "It's a period of change which we knew was going to happen and it's a question of how it's managed," Rob Andrew said. "Only time will tell, but it's not going to happen quickly."