Rugby union: Baister edges to the endgame

Paul Trow suggests that at last the game's civil war may be drawing to a close
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RUGBY, as conventional wisdom had it, was a game for thugs played by gentlemen. The definition of football, by comparison, was always the converse.

Those were the days when the 15-a-side game was characterised as a pastime for amateurs looking to let off steam while the 11-man version was a grim profession cast anecdotally in the "more important than life and death" mould. Today, though, the distinctions are blurred almost to be meaningless. As we approach the new season in both sports, the main task confronting each is whether the governing bodies can keep the major clubs on-side, particularly with Europe in mind.

However, after another week of posturing, rumour and denial, it seems that the power in rugby may finally be drifting away from the millionaire- financed but revenue-hungry English clubs. Even though no one in authority seems able to give a clear indication as to what is going on, far less what might be decided, it can be construed none the less that a potentially satisfactory outcome for the establishment may be just over the horizon.

In the last seven days alone, we have been presented by the clubs with a fixture schedule for the opening weeks of the coming Allied Dunbar Premiership One season only for it to be hastily withdrawn the moment questions, inevitably, were asked how a league of 14 teams could produce only six matches at a time.

Clearly, dividing Premiership One into two seven-team conferences was one masterplan on Wednesday, when the short-lived fixture list was unveiled. Another was to hold fire on the remaining fixtures while Cardiff and Swansea decided which side of Offa's Dyke to jump.

The current scheme, though, is quite different, the product as much as anything of Thursday's decision by France's five leading clubs to throw in their lot with the European Rugby Cup and kick the proposed renegade Anglo-French competition into touch.

At the end of a week of cross-border negotiations, during which several delegations visited France and the ERC held a board meeting in Dublin, it seems that two issues are a lot clearer. The first is that English clubs, having scathingly denounced the ERC's running of the European Cup, are, barring a volte face provoked by Sky Sports and the sponsors Heineken, sidelined from this season's European Cup. The second is that there is now no reason for a complete set of Allied Dunbar fixtures not to be released, especially as Gloucester's owner Tom Walkinshaw is meeting Brian Baister, the newly-elected chairman of the RFU's management board, early this week with a brief to hammer out the season's programme.

Once the English clubs had failed to persuade their French counterparts to enter into an unofficial entente cordiale, reports circulated that they were making a last-ditch attempt to gain reinstatement to the official event. But Donald Kerr, the chairman of the leading clubs' English Rugby Partnership, seemed upbeat at the prospect of his constituents sitting out the party until the 1999-2000 season. "The Anglo-French negotiations haven't got anywhere as far as the English clubs are concerned," he said. "I think it's fair to say that we're looking to get a settlement of all the issues as soon as possible.

"There's a mood afoot to get things sorted and get on with playing the game. There's a will there and it's time to get everything done. We're looking to agree a complete package with all the interested parties, including the unions and the ERC. The relationship with the RFU is good now and we are working well together."

Baister, whose ousting of Cliff Brittle after two and a half controversial years in charge at last month's RFU annual meeting is being hailed as a watershed for English rugby, echoed this new spirit of co-operation between two groups which have been at l oggerheads almost since the International Board declared the game open three years ago. "Our negotiations with the clubs are being conducted with much greater understanding and there is more confidence all round," he said. "We are constantly on the phone to each other.

"But there are some very senistive negotiations going on and it would be wrong for us to say anything at all about them, especially as we might be getting a following wind for the coming season at long last and we want it to continue. My message to the game is 'watch this space', especially as meetings will be going on over the weekend and early next week."

At last it seems that rugby's boardroom thuggery may be subsiding, but whether that means the gentlemen are about to regain control is perhaps a little too early to say.