Rugby: Absolute victory spells absolute chaos

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IT HAS been a long, hard and dirty war. There was a time towards the end of last season when victory looked a possibility but it was not to be, and those of us who have given the cause our best shot must accept defeat with as much grace as possible given that English rugby has finally blown the best chance it has ever had to expand and develop the game beyond the clubhouse walls.

There can be no denying now that the clubs have won hands down and the events of the past week, culminating in Friday's meeting of the Rugby Football Union Council, have confirmed them in their position of power. It all began on Monday in London at the meeting of the Six Nations. Reading between the lines, always a dangerous thing to do when there is enough fudge to fill a confectioner's shop, the idea of a British League was never a serious proposition. It appears that it was nothing more than a temporary contrivance to help the English clubs fulfil their self-imposed obligation to Cardiff and Swansea.

This much was clear from their lukewarm reception to the scheme following the Six Nations' meeting. The members of the working party set up to discuss the plans for its inception next season will, almost certainly, be wasting their time. In the space of just two weeks the British League has plummeted from being the saviour of the game to the deadest of ducks. So why should this be when the concept won widespread approval and when those like Vernon Pugh who questioned the wisdom of its indecently swift formation were subjected to venomous abuse?

Perhaps it was Allan Hosie's insistence that any such league would have to be controlled by the unions and not by the clubs. Perhaps there is yet another agenda hidden in the clubs' closet or maybe they have come to the conclusion that the Allied Dunbar Premiership isn't such a bad competition after all. If this is indeed their conclusion, then a very persuasive factor in helping them reach it would have been the RFU's willingness to devolve power and control to the clubs.

Brian Baister, the chairman of the RFU board of management, has made this clear in recent days and it would account for the clubs' rapid u-turn. Baister's belief that the clubs should be able to run their own competitions, leaving the RFU to govern the amateur game and international rugby, is wincingly naive. In theory the desire to make the clubs self- sufficient makes sense, but in reality the club game, in isolation from the RFU's other properties, is of such little value that it would have to be massively subsidised. As it is the clubs are receiving far more from the Sky television deal than the product is worth and such is the parasitic nature of the beast that their demands would be all- consuming. The RFU now seem powerless to divert the clubs from this ruinous course. There is general recognition within the council that the clubs have flagrantly breached the Mayfair agreement, yet no sanctions will be taken against them. The International Rugby Board, it seems, are equally powerless, or unwilling, to take action against the RFU.

In the shorter term, however, it is the clubs' response to the proposals for a revamped European Cup which will be of great significance. Once again Hosie made it clear that European Rugby Cup would remain in control, but, in their present mood, which is if anything even more militant than last season, England's clubs are likely to reject proposals emanating from that body. So long as they are receiving the tacit support of their own union, the clubs will feel confident, and the tragedy of the situation in which the game finds itself is that those whose intent it is to wreck the International Championship are now in positions of influence at Twickenham.

The splendour of the Madejski Stadium, the peripheral razzmatazz, the healthy attendances at Premiership matches are superficial gloss concealing the truth. Two more top clubs are ready to go belly up at any time. The decline in the numbers playing the game continues at an alarming rate. There was a 25 per cent reduction last season and the projection for this season is a staggering 40 per cent.

The situation is even worse in the Celtic countries. The Scots, with a tiny player base, have sensibly begun the reconstruction process and underneath the two super districts have reverted to amateurism. But at the moment they are operating in a vacuum with no meaningful opposition for their professionals and few opportunities for marketing the sport to that rapidly contracting group of youngsters who form the next generation of players.

The speed of the game's degeneration in Wales has been truly shocking. There is no single reason for it, but it cannot be chance that the collapse in interest has coincided with the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the national side. This should send the starkest message to all those with the conviction that the future lies with the clubs. Club rugby cannot stand comparison with football and it never will. For Manchester United read England, not Leicester, Saracens or Richmond.

Last week's events have demonstrated that there will be no lifeline thrown to the Celts by England. Their problems are of little concern to the RFU and still less to the English club owners. Doug Ash's resignation as chief executive of English First Division Rugby and the increasing unrest of the Second Division clubs are indications of the divisions within the clubs' own ranks. The RFU have, by a democratic process which wouldn't pass muster in any respectable democracy, embarked on their present course in partnership with their clubs and they must live with the consequences of that as best they can. It will be up to the Celts to work out their own salvation.