Rich get richer in rugby's new deal

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

English rugby raised a farewell glass to the dear old Courage League yesterday and, with just the merest hint of a beery belch, clambered aboard a new pounds 12m gravy train called the Allied Dunbar Premiership. For brewers read financial services, for foaming pints read personal protection plans, for the common good read naked elitism.

Very modern, very ruthless. The insurance company's undeniably substantial investment will be swallowed whole by the 24 clubs in the top two divisions, now to be known as Allied Dunbar Premiership One and Two. No other club will lay a finger on the loot; from Reading and Leeds in the existing Third Division to Minchinhampton and Wotton-under-Edge in the direst depths of Gloucestershire Four, the great hinterland of the rugby landscape will be left to fend for itself.

Not that the movers and shakers of the English Rugby Partnership, the new management body charged with the organisation and running of domestic competitions, will lose too much sleep on that score. Yesterday's ratification ceremony was a triumph for the senior club activists who fought the Rugby Football Union to a standstill for a year and, as a result, now hold positions of enormous influence in the game.

Indeed, if the announcement of Allied Dunbar's three-year commitment signalled a great leap forward in the financial sense, it was even more striking as a symbol of the shift in the balance of power at the top end of the sport. While Donald Kerr, the chairman of ERP and a leading protagonist in rugby's bitter civil war, held court at the top table yesterday, John Richardson, the RFU president, was sitting anonymously among the hoi polloi.

Kim Deshayes, the ERP chief executive, described the Premiership deal as "a giant step forward towards a proper professional structure for rugby in the new century" and predicted that each First Division club could expect pounds 100,000 annually direct from the Allied Dunbar pot. "That's treble the income from the existing sponsorship deal with Courage," he pointed out.

But before the ink was dry on the contract, Kerr was warning the biggest- spending clubs that current wage levels were unsustainable. "There's not much we at ERP can do about over-inflated wages because it is illegal to impose a salary cap," he said. "It might be possible to contain salary expenditure within a certain proportion of income, but that hits the poorer clubs far harder than the better off. The age of the sugar daddy is by no means over; in fact, I'm not sure it will ever be over."

The best ERP estimate on the total money available to the clubs it represents next season - worked out on the basis of Allied Dunbar cash, Sky broadcasting revenue and funds arising from the Heineken and Pilikington Cups - is close to pounds 10m. Split between the two Premiership divisions on a two-thirds/one-third basis, it still leaves a black hole in many balance sheets that can only be filled by heavy outside investment.

Meanwhile, the RFU will attempt to ease the financial fears of the vast majority of English clubs by piecing together a package of small sponsorship deals designed specifically to send money trickling down to the grass roots.

The first of those was secured this week when NPI, the pensions group, agreed to support the Junior and Intermediate cup finals at Twickenham on 3 May and the RFU is also hopeful that Courage will continue to back the sport at local league level.