RUGBY UNION: Andrew's survival plan can revitalise the English game

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IT TAKES some believing after four long years in the madhouse, but sanity is beginning to break out among those who have lost millions of pounds - not to mention their marbles - in attempting to establish rugby union as a serious, sustainable professional sport. Rob Andrew, the squeaky-clean Twickenham hero who was one of the first to get his hands dirty when the game went open in 1995, yesterday unveiled what amounted to a survival plan for the club game in England and, at the same time, struck a resounding blow for common sense.

Newcastle's director of rugby published the first draft of a plan designed to end the political argy-bargy that has reduced the game to a laughing stock, stop the financial haemorrhaging that has put the vast majority of clubs at the mercy of their bank managers, create a prosperous professional game in every region of the country and help create an England national side capable of breaking the southern hemisphere hegemony at the 2003 World Cup. Imaginative? Realistic? Logical? Yes, yes and yes. Socrates himself would have struggled to match it.

There is a price to pay, of course: promotion and relegation will be a thing of the past and, although the eternally diplomatic Andrew did not say as much, the Tetley's Bitter Cup will be either downgraded or sacrificed altogether. But the rewards are such that neither the Rugby Football Union nor the owners of England's leading professional clubs can afford to play politics with the Andrew proposal. This is their best, perhaps final, opportunity to dig themselves out of a very deep hole, and the likelihood must be that they will embrace it.

By a happy coincidence, there is a great deal of common ground between Andrew's plan and that put forward by Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, a week ago. Both blueprints envisage a ring-fenced franchise system at the top end of the English game, under which clubs would be expected to meet minimum criteria on a range of issues - stadiums and facilities, financial probity, community involvement, youth development. Both reflect the need for a genuine managerial partnership between the "old farts" - the RFU - and the "new suits", the club owners.

But this latest scheme, the brainchild of an RFU-backed task force chaired by Andrew, differs sharply from Walkinshaw's in that it rejects the idea of a British League involving teams from Wales and Scotland. "Our brief was to come up with a viable club structure for England that would also help produce a strong national team," the former Lions outside-half said. "I don't see that a British League offers any platform or foundation for the game in this country. "

One of the many beauties of Andrew's scheme is that it would prevent a destructive power struggle between the English clubs and the Six Nations Committee, many of whose delegates believe a British League would undermine the pre-eminent status of the Heineken Cup and, therefore, are in no mood to sanction it. The blueprint also makes life easier for the owners, who would not have to shell out pounds 1m up front for their franchises. Indeed, Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive who sat alongside Andrew yesterday and publicly backed the document, said he was confident that the task force plan would generate more money than the pounds 85m secured by Walkinshaw.

Interestingly, Andrew goes far further than the Gloucester owner in suggesting modifications to English and European fixtures. Under his scheme, the franchised English Premiership would be finished by the end of January, after which the Heineken Cup and European Shield competitions would be played over nine weeks to the end of March. International rugby would then kick in, with the Six Nations spread over a seven-week period in April and May. "All this is based on a 10-month season, which is not dissimilar to the southern hemisphere programme," Andrew said.

"In my view, the Six Nations is the pinnacle of the European season," he continued. "By scheduling it in April and May and following it up with a two-Test tour in June, the international teams would be together for three months, thus replicating the situation south of the equator. I know there has been a lot of fuss about keeping the Six Nations in its current place in the season, but the old intransigence is beginning to disappear."

Baron, who claimed to have had a "constructive discussion" with Walkinshaw in Manchester on Wednesday despite telling him that his plan did not stack up commercially, had the final word. "There's only one boat here, and we're all in it," he said. "There is no future for this business if we return to confrontation." The RFU management board will consider both documents on 22 December.


l New English elite league involving 12 franchised clubs - three each from London, the Midlands, the North and the South-west.

l No promotion or relegation. Initial franchises to continue for a four- year "bedding down" period, with the rest of the game reverting to semi- professional or amateur status.

l The new league to be administered by a four-man commission - effectively a joint venture between the Rugby Football Union and the franchise holders.

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Friday 17 December 1999 Registered as a newspaper with the Post Office