Rugby Union: Baister stays defiant in the firing line

Paul Trow finds Twickenham's head man upbeat despite the downs
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WITH THE typically understated delivery of a policeman presenting evidence, Brian Baister hesitated before confessing that "yes, these have been difficult times".

It goes without saying that this particular former deputy chief constable has had anything but a happy lot, not just during the past week, but since his election as the chairman of the Rugby Football Union's executive committee last July. However, Baister, taking stock after a six-month period in office which might have taxed even Bill Clinton's stamina, believes that light is visible at the end of the tunnel. His police training has prepared him for crisis management in a way that is unfamiliar to many of his predecessors in the RFU's senior echelons.

Although he is an ex-copper his role at Twickenham so far has been more that of fire fighter. Two things, though, are quite clear: Baister has had more than enough of the hassle, and his support for his equally beleaguered chief executive Francis Baron is unshaken.

The catalogue of hassles seems endless, but he denies culpability. "All these issues were already around on 19 July when I was elected as chairman," he said. "One thing I would say is that, thank goodness, there are no new problems. The clubs' cross-border matches deal with Swansea and Cardiff was a two-year agreement, the Five Nations' TV accord dated back to September 1996, and the decision of the leading clubs to take legal action against the International Board had already been formulated."

Most prominent in the public eye has been the blip over the Five Nations' Championship. A week ago, England were expelled, a day later, indecently hastily perhaps, the "misunderstanding" over the distribution of television revenue had been swept away. Baister, the former England captain Bill Beaumont and the Five Nations' Committee's supremo, Allan Hosie, met in a pub, and suddenly the whole matter was solved.

It seems, though, that Baister is far from convinced that the Celts are in the right. "In the past, we were told by TV executives that if you measured the value to the broadcaster of showing a match involving England as 100, that value would only go up to 115 if you added the value provided by showing it to the Scots, Irish and Welsh."

Now Baister can turn his attention to even bigger problems - the wrangle with the IB over the RFU's response to the clubs' submission about the running of the game to the European Commission. "The clubs' action against the IB is out of our control. The problem is that we are advised by solicitors who tell us that what these clubs are doing is legal in the eyes of European law and we cannot prevent them from doing it," Baister said. "The fine shouldn't be levied against the union. It's like being found guilty of armed robbery when the crime has actually been committed by someone else.

"Our legal advice suggests that there's a distinct possibility the clubs might win the case, and if that happened then it would open up the possibility that any fine imposed on us by the IB would be illegal. Of course we support the IB's authority but we cannot go into an unlawful situation."

A feeling of "watch this space" prevails over this particular issue, as it does over the question of how club rugby might be structured next season.

"The most important issue there is getting our clubs back into Europe," Baister said. "We are very keen to put together a cross-border competition, but we wouldn't want it just to let ourselves off the hook, only if it improves the quality of rugby in England - gates, sponsorship and broadcasting rights.

"One of our immediate problems is the Mayfair Agreement [between the clubs and the RFU] - there can be no change to anything without the unanimous approval of all the clubs in Allied Dunbar Premiership One or Two. The problem is that the scheme we've been talking to the Welsh about involved 10 of their clubs joining the first two divisions of the Anglo-Welsh. The problem is, how do you accommodate 10 Welsh clubs without upsetting the English clubs who are already in place?

"The way we see it, though, is that we aim for a first division of 14 clubs. On top of that there might be nine European Cup games and perhaps as many as four Tetley's Bitter Cup Saturdays. At the end of the season, there might have been a maximum of 39 club games and a minimum of 33. But if you're one of the clubs down in the current second division, and you're not involved in Europe, you can play in a league of 16 clubs, as can the three senior Jewson League clubs."

Cross-border leagues are all very well, and it seems the English and Welsh have a plan in that respect (the Welsh are due to respond to the RFU's proposals by 31 January) but what about the Scottish and Irish? "The Irish have said they're no longer interested because they wanted to put out four provincial sides but were unable to pay the clubs for using 100-150 players. The problem with the Scots is that there's going to be an investigation into their rugby and that may change the face of the Scottish game."

As for London Scottish's problems, and Bristol's proposed takeover, Baister is unsympathetic. "Bristol know the top club in Premiership Two will automatically gain promotion and that the second-placed team will face the second-from-bottom side in Premiership One in a play-off."

Meanwhile, despite all the problems, Baister remains an optimist: "The last six months have been about mending bridges, hopefully the next six will be about building something positive." He is also, crucially, a rugby man at heart who still enjoys Saturday afternoons watching his beloved Chester.

"The only thing I insist on when I go there is that nobody talks rugby politics to me. If they do, they're fined a pint on the spot."