Rugby Union: Bath deny Rowell takeover rumour as Bristol hit hard times

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The Independent Online
Rugby union's sugar-daddy investors are showing signs of nerves as their balance sheets slide ever deeper into the red.

With the Allied Dunbar Premiership awash with rumours of takeover bids, rescue packages and impending bankruptcies, Chris Hewett examines the latest upheavals in a volatile financial landscape.

It is Black October in rugby's hard-up heartlands and for the money men in the boardrooms, life at the sharp end of a fledgling professional sport is becoming less and less of a novelty. Bristol announced losses of pounds 486,671 yesterday and later this week, their infinitely better-heeled neighbours from Bath are likely to confess to an operating deficit of around three times that amount. No wonder the entrepreneurs are feeling jittery.

While Bristol insist they are close to securing the sort of seven-figure cash injection that would prevent them going to the wall, senior figures at Bath are questioning the long-term commitment of Andrew Brownsword, the reclusive greetings card tycoon who bought 75 per cent of the club for pounds 2.5m just over a year ago.

Yesterday, Brownsword scotched rumours that he was about to cut and run, but his denial was not enough to quash suggestions of a takeover bid.

Jack Rowell, the former England coach who spent 17 years of his life transforming Bath from backwater nobodies into the most successful club side in world rugby, is widely believed to be investigating a possible return to the Recreation Ground at the head of a powerful consortium, including a High Street bank and a wealthy local businessman with strong family ties to the club.

"I'm in business-building mode at the moment," said Rowell yesterday. "I've certainly had no discussions with Bath Plc and I do not foresee any imminent involvement on my part. In fact, I'm thoroughly enjoying my break from the game." He is, however, thought to have made Brownsword aware of his interest.

Certainly, the grapevine was talkative enough to force Brownsword's men into issuing a rapid denial. Tom Sheppard, the club's company secretary, said: "I can categorically say that no meetings have taken place with any potential investor. Neither have we been approached to set up a meeting. Quite simply, Mr Brownsword's share of the club is not for sale. He did not become involved with rugby on a short-term basis."

However, Bath will have to raise extra capital if they are to realise their dream of leaving the cramped, futureless confines of the council- owned Rec and build a purpose-built stadium on some of the disused land in and around the city. Unless Brownsword is prepared to pump even more of his vast fortune into the club, a second major financial player will have to be brought on board.

Meanwhile, Arthur Holmes, the nearest thing Bristol have to a Brownsword- style investor, warned that clubs will continue to find it "impossible to equate expenditure and income". He blamed a chaotic fixture list and reduced financial support from the Rugby Football Union as prime causes of what is fast developing into a widespread financial crisis.

Holmes, who chairs Bristol's management board, has seen the club's salary bill escalate by pounds 772,000. By comparison, revenue increased by just pounds 326,000 and it does not require an economics graduate to understand the gravity of that discrepancy. Unsurprisingly, Bristol's auditors have issued a warning.

"New financial backing is now essential," said a spokesman for Kidsons Impey. "If discussions are unsuccessful and the company is unable to raise the level of finance required to meet short-term capital obligations, the company might be unable to continue operating." Bleak days indeed.

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