Rugby teeters on the brink of a second great split

Steve Bale analyses how months of negotiation have led to an impasse in the headlong rush towards professionalism
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The Independent Online
At Twickenham yesterday, Cliff Brittle repeated one of his favourite assertions since the membership of the Rugby Football Union made him chairman of the union's executive in express defiance of the stated preference of that very executive. With the introduction of professionalism, he said, English rugby was trying to do in months what should realistically take years.

This is a reasonable point, though it is extraordinary that it is England alone which has undergone such a paroxysm since the dread day when the International Rugby Board declared rugby open - for business - nearly eight months ago. If you didn't know, you would surely guess that in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa they just got on with it.

The trouble is that the eight months have in fact turned out to be three, because it was only once Brittle was contentiously elected in January that negotiations between the RFU and its major clubs could begin in earnest. Three months to work out how to run and pay for a professional dispensation that, by Brittle's own account, should have taken three or even five years... perhaps it is not so surprising that the English game is tearing itself asunder.

At any rate, it will do if the clubs execute their threat to remove themselves from the union's jurisdiction. They want autonomously to run and gain the full financial benefit of those competitions in which they participate, whereas the RFU insists its untrammelled control over English rugby and its exclusive rights to television and sponsorship monies are non-negotiable.

As these are among the principal negotiating positions of the clubs - represented these days by the ghastly acronym EPRUC (English Professional Rugby Union Clubs) - they have since yesterday been left with the straight choice of backing down or breaking away. For the latter to be credible, they would need the equivalent clubs of every other significant European union to do likewise.

Whether in England or elsewhere, we should believe it when we see it, though if it did happen the RFU would be hugely embarrassed, not only because of the awful consequences but because the broadcasters who have supposedly pledged their undying fidelity to the union would be shown instead to have been duplicitous in the extreme.

This crisis may seem to have come upon English rugby unawares, but the exactitude of hindsight demonstrates that it has been a possibility ever since the IRB consigned amateurism to history. The RFU takes great pride in the convoluted, but preciously democratic, way it then set about implementing the new dispensation. It has congratulated itself on being the only big union around the world to have had a commission of investigation and special general meeting of the membership.

So keen were the hoi-polloi to talk about the vexed subject that they even had to have a second special general meeting, basically to agree to something they had already agreed at the first one. But at least they were given their 15 minutes - or seven hours, if you add the meetings together - of fame.

The clubs set out on the road to yesterday's breakdown as soon as the commission had been appointed, talking a good boycott and complaining of inadequate representation for the First Division, which would, after all, be at the sharp end of professionalism. From there the situation deteriorated only slowly, until the orgy of recrimination that has taken place over the past 10 days.

At first, Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, and Peter Wheeler, then the biggest of the First Division big shots, had continued an amicable but essentially meaningless dialogue. The sea-change occurred the weekend before last when 19 of EPRUC's 20 members - the exception being London Scottish - boycotted a meeting at Twickenham and were then surprised to find Brittle and Hallett using less conciliatory language.

The ensuing campaign of obloquy against Brittle was both unpleasant and counter-productive. The two sides are left further apart than ever at the very moment - less than a month from the end of the season and the RFU's moratorium on club professionalism - when they should have long since come together.

And though the RFU has been at best dilatory, EPRUC made a calamitous diplomatic blunder in expecting Sir John Hall of Newcastle United and Newcastle RFC to have the slightest idea that what makes rugby tick is different from what makes football tick.

It has been reported that when Hall met Brittle last Thursday Hall had to be physically restrained, and even Brittle admits the confrontation was "heated". But now, if ever, is a time for cool heads and rational debate. The Rugby Football Union has called the bluff of its great clubs and waits to see if there will be a second great split 101 years after the first.

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