England's leading rugby clubs are threatening to take legal action against their governing body, the Rugby Football Union, following yet another damaging turn of events in the long-running power battle that has ripped the sport asunder.
Relations between the two sides reached their lowest ebb yesterday as talks broke down once again.
The RFU claimed last night that Epruc, the pressure group representing clubs in England's top two divisions, had refused to confirm that players would be released for England's opening international of the season against Italy on 23 November. John Richardson, the RFU president, insisted that his team had put forward a "fair and long-term" agreement and said he would be writing to each of the 24 clubs individually to appeal for moderation.
Epruc, meanwhile, accused the RFU of acting in bad faith by reneging on a draft agreement forged at a marathon round of negotiations on 14 October. Donald Kerr, the Epruc chairman, said a wholly different document was on the table when discussions resumed at the Richmond Gate Hotel in London yesterday.
"We had drafted that agreement and then last night they faxed through to us a completely different agreement where they retracted everything they had agreed at the first series of meetings, even to the extent where they offered us pounds 200,000 to wind up Epruc," Kerr said on Radio 5 Live last night.
He claimed the RFU had hardened their stance to such a degree that Epruc, which is demanding control over domestic club competitions, had no option but to recommend legal action to its members. This, he said, would be brought under United Kingdom and European competition law although he stopped short of saying that the clubs would now stage a breakaway and did not suggest the national squad, most of whom have signed Epruc contracts, would be asked to boycott tomorrow's England gathering at Henley.
Nevertheless, the breakdown will come as a serious blow to the England coach, Jack Rowell, whose preparations for the Italy match are being undermined by the dispute.
Colin Herridge, the RFU treasurer who missed yesterday's talks because of a visit to Italy, registered his deep dismay at the failure to reach a settlement. "It's disastrous for both the clubs and the RFU," he said. "I haven't seen the latest document but I was under the impression that it was simply a more user-friendly version of the earlier draft. I honestly thought that we had the basis for agreement, but we are now in serious danger of scaring broadcasters and sponsors away from the game."
Herridge, regarded by the clubs as an RFU "dove", was replaced by the finance specialist David Fison at yesterday's meeting. The other RFU negotiators included Richardson, their secretary, Tony Hallett and the executive chairman, Cliff Brittle, who has repeatedly incurred the wrath of the Epruc officials. One Epruc insider last night identified Brittle as "the one and only stumbling block".
Both sides were legally represented, while the players sent along their own observer, the Bristol-based solicitor David Powell, who said: "I hope the two sides can get back round the table and reconsider their positions because the game needs the money far more than the lawyers do."
The clubs expected to discuss only two outstanding issues yesterday, the RFU's demand for a veto over any new competitions and the complex situation surrounding the governing body's corporation tax liability. Epruc officials are angry that up to pounds 4m may have to go to the taxman when, they say, it could easily have been distributed to grassroots clubs.
According to the Epruc team, however, the document with which they were confronted raised far broader issues and as a result, the meeting broke up in a morass of bad feeling.
n The Bristol lock Phil Adams and Wasps' England A hooker Kevin Dunn have each been banned for 60 days by a Rugby Football Union disciplinary hearing after being found guilty of stamping. Adams, banned for 75 days for kicking in 1990, was punished following an incident involving the Northampton lock Jon Phillips in September. Dunn was sent off earlier this month against his former club Gloucester. Two weeks of his ban have elapsed as he was suspended by Wasps pending the hearing.Reuse content