English rugby union's governing body last night as good as capitulated to the leading clubs who have been threatening to secede after a day-long emergency session of the Rugby Football Union's full committee at the London Hilton.
In accordance with the wishes of the clubs, Bill Bishop, the RFU president, was drafted into the negotiating team - though still under the nominal chairmanship of Cliff Brittle, the highly contentious RFU executive committee chairman. "We wish the negotiations to continue as speedily as possible," Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said.
Far more significant is that the RFU has agreed on virtually all of the 12 negotiating positions put to it by the clubs, leaving control of the game itself as the only outstanding issue. It is impossible to believe the clubs will not agree to compromise on this, especially as it now appears they will receive all the monies from the competitions in which they participate.
The pressure on the RFU increased when it became clear that England's First Division players, who will be the new professionals whoever is in charge, were ready to side with the clubs rather than the RFU.
This week the clubs' response to the RFU's outright refusal to cede any of its administrative or financial powers over the professional game provoked the clubs into announcing a boycott of next season's RFU league and cup competitions in order to play in their own. A declaration of full-scale independence would have been their next step.
As the RFU's full committee was gathered yesterday, the Bath captain, Phil de Glanville, one of those dealing personally with the warring parties on behalf of the piggies-in-the-middle, pleaded for an accommodation. Lawrence Dallaglio and Paul Johnson, captains of Wasps and Orrell, have also been involved.
"Having looked at the two positions and talked to both sides, we know there's a lot of common ground and a negotiated settlement is feasible," De Glanville said. "But there needs to be a lot of give from both and at the moment there is very little from either.
"If the worst came to the worst, I can't say what every individual player in the First Division would decide but, though we won't say this in public, we have made it very clear to the parties what our position would be if a breakaway occurred."
On Thursday English Professional Clubs claimed they had the players' support and it does appear that if it came to a straight choice the majority would go with Epruc provided the clubs produce the financial packages they claim will be available.
The RFU has the England team - the official version - but the intermittence of international rugby compares unfavourably in career terms with club rugby and the vast majority of First Division players do not play for England and so have no access to international pay-outs.
De Glanville made it clear that the clubs' fixture structure - a two- tier European competition supported by a 24-team Anglo-Welsh league and 12-team English Conference - would be preferable to the union's with its smaller European involvement and insistence on the intrusion of divisional rugby.
"We're not going to be publicly drawn on one side or the other. To have to choose between club and country is not a position we should ever be put in," De Glanville said. "What is very worrying for the players is that a lot of them have to make career decisions about next season and for them it's a nightmare scenario."
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