RFU pins its hopes on the broadcasters

on the latest developments affecting rugby union's television drama
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The Independent Online
English rugby's embattled governing body is now almost ready to jump into bed - though not quite alone - with BSkyB and then hope the Five Nations' Championship will be saved by competing broadcasters bidding up the price of separate television contracts with the other home unions.

This perilous path, with ITV as probable partner for Sky in England, was explicitly confirmed as Rugby Football Union policy at Twickenham yesterday. The union restated the case which 12 days ago won the approval of its full committee but not that of Cliff Brittle, its own executive's chairman and bete noire of the English clubs in the RFU's other ongoing altercation. In vain Brittle had instructed that yesterday's briefing should not take place.

The RFU is keen to have the penny and the bun, so to speak. Tony Hallett, the secretary, said on the one hand: "The market-place is that much more vibrant by having Sky in it." And on the other: "Our honest target is to mix and match, with no exclusive deal. I take the moral high ground as opposed to the financial high ground on this issue."

Having resolved to sit alone - with its prospective pounds 150m - on the moral high ground by rejecting the equal four-way split that is televised rugby's tradition, the RFU is putting on its most emollient face, a model of sweet reasonableness plainly intended to put its Celtic antagonists in a belligerent light.

"I've been accused of being blimpish and arrogant, and I'm told Willie- John McBride thinks I'm an idiot," John Jeavons-Fellows, the RFU's main TV negotiator, said. McBride was an eminent Lions captain 22 years ago; Jeavons-Fellows was the executive's nominee for the chairmanship famously trounced by Brittle in a vote of the RFU membership three months ago.

In the light of current bargaining positions, it is curious to note that the RFU already has a substantially larger share, because although the pounds 27m payable by the BBC under the 1994-97 contract has been divided four ways, England's massive cut of the subsidiary Sky contract takes it to 37 per cent. Evidently, this no longer suffices.

Having refused to back down no matter what, the RFU has an exhaustingly long way to go to win the hearts and minds of the Welsh, Scots and Irish, the latter having this week added a strident anti-RFU voice to those of the other two who were already innately hostile to anything emanating from Twickenham.

The English are now in effect relying on either Sky or the BBC or ITV, or a combination, not only to pay the RFU a vast sum for the next TV contract beginning next year but also to do something similar for the other unions. Only this way, it seems, can the championship, the Lions and conceivably even England's status as one of the hosts of the 1999 World Cup be preserved.

Yesterday's plaintive message from Twickenham was that England would never voluntarily leave the Five Nations, so would have to be kicked out. To avoid that eventuality, the RFU would now like their "friends", as they were described, to listen to its detailed position so that everyone might benefit. Utopia will then be achieved.

"Consultants' advice suggests that by doing it singly in the same way as France, the broadcasters singly or jointly will go from one country to another to bid for the rights for the matches played in that territory," Hallett said. "We believe that all will be well once the negotiations are under way."

The RFU legitimises its argument with statistics - 77.7 per cent of the rugby-viewing public of the United Kingdom, 82 per cent of the population, expenditure of nearly pounds 8m to service the game in England which is claimed to be very nearly as much as the other three unions put together.

But there is another agenda, freely admitted yesterday. The RFU took out a pounds 34m loan to cover the rebuilding of Twickenham which costs an annual pounds 3.5m to service. The first of four equal repayments is due in 1999 with the fourth in 2003, so the RFU needs serious money and it needs it quickly.

"In making our financial projections we need to be in control of these numbers because if we fell short it's our problem and no one else's," Jeavons-Fellows said. "We're not talking about selling the Five Nations; we're only talking about selling the Twickenham matches."

A meeting of the Five Nations in Dublin on Saturday, flagged as a deadline by the Scottish RU vice-president Fred McLeod when the row blew up last week, turns out to be a meeting of European Rugby Cup Ltd, though there is not a great difference between the two. No meeting of the home unions' television advisory committee is scheduled.