Rugby Union: Baister attacks power seekers

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The Independent Online
ENGLISH RUGBY'S interminable war of words developed into a full- scale verbal conflagration last night when Brian Baister, the hitherto ultra-diplomatic chairman of the Rugby Football Union, accused leading figures in the professional club set-up of engaging in the naked pursuit of personal ambition, writes Chris Hewett.

Baister's uncharacteristic outburst was a clear signal that he had finally tired of the political shadow boxing that has disfigured the sport in recent months.

The chairman made his remarks in a letter to the 28 Allied Dunbar Premiership clubs. The communication was a direct result of some inflammatory weekend comments from Mike Smith, the chief executive of Saracens, and Sir John Hall, the Newcastle owner, who appeared to dismiss moves to establish a new British league for next season.

Even though leading figures from English First Division Rugby, the clubs' pressure group, acted swiftly to disassociate themselves from what they described as "purely personal opinions", Baister grasped the opportunity to talk tough and earn some much-needed respect from the international rugby community.

"Despite the realistic and reasonable attitude of the RFU, we seem constantly to be faced with people with scant regard for written agreements and who persistently change what we are told is their collective mind," he wrote.

"This aggressive and single-minded attitude does nothing for the game in England and severely damages the reputation of our union at international level. There are 28 clubs involved, yet we only ever hear the views of three or four of them. If we are to make any progress, the RFU needs to hear from people whose concerns are about the game and the future of professional club rugby and not centred on personal ambition."

Baister, far more switched on as a diplomat than his predecessor Cliff Brittle, appealed to the clubs to negotiate with a collective voice and he may well get his way. Hall, the most militant of the club owners, has infuriated his colleagues on EFDR with his provocative approach and is likely to face severe criticism at the next full board meeting on 22 October.

"A majority of the clubs would agree with most of Brian's opinions," said one EFDR source last night. "He has emerged as the honest broker and it's up to us to meet him half-way."