Rugby Union: Beaumont's lone fight for English cause

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The Independent Online
Bill Beaumont won more than his fair share of battles against the odds as an inspirational England captain, but as the Rugby Football Union's honest broker he faces perhaps his biggest challenge in Dublin today, to save the Heineken Cup from collapse - and the English clubs from self-imposed exile. Chris Hewett sets the scene.

Board members of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organising body of a spectacularly successful Heineken Cup tournament that reaches its climax in Bordeaux a week tomorrow, insist they do not know why England's senior clubs are planning to abandon next season's competition. They had better find out without further delay because as things stand, Brive and Bath will be conducting a wake as well as a final in eight days' time.

Today's ERC meeting in Dublin was originally planned as a brief, convivial get-together to rubber-stamp arrangements for the climax to another compelling Heineken series. It has since taken on a darker hue. The English clubs, infuriated by next season's fixture schedule and exasperated by what they describe as the "Celtic veto" wielded by delegates from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, are deadly serious in their boycott threat.

Indeed, the clubs will not be represented at the negotiating table today; only Bill Beaumont, a Rugby Football Union nominee, will be present to play the English card in an effort to square what many see as an unsquareable circle. "I'll be on my own," he admitted yesterday. "I'll be attempting to negotiate something that will bring the English clubs back from the brink."

At least Beaumont is travelling across the Irish Sea in optimistic mood. "I'm coming at this from the point of view of the players and I want to find a settlement for their sakes," he said. "The Heineken has been a tremendous tournament, an important one in our development as a rugby- playing country. Yes, I will be taking something to the table. Yes, I am hopeful that progress can be made."

Quite what that "something" is remains to be seen. There is little doubt that the board, under the chairmanship of Ireland's Tom Kiernan, will go the extra mile in attempting to keep the English on board. Without the likes of Bath and Leicester, broadcasters will be none too keen on buying into the competition. Without broadcasters, the ERC will not have a tournament worthy of the name.

"It's a difficult situation to assess," said Roger Pickering, the tournament director. "Given that we thought we had unanimous agreement on next season's fixtures, we're really not sure what the problem is. We talk to different people in England and get different messages as to what the issues actually are.

"If the English clubs refuse to talk to us, how can we reach a solution? We've always been, and always will be, willing to sit down and discuss any issue under the sun. As long as the English recognise that there are six nations involved here, not just one, I see no reason why an agreement cannot be reached."

Meanwhile, the downtrodden burghers of Bristol received another body blow to their morale yesterday as David Tiueti, their Tongan international wing, was put on the transfer list. "We have been advised by his agent that David is unhappy and is looking for more money," said Fred Howard, rugby manager of the relegation-threatened West Country club. "We are not able to comply with that request and we don't want anyone within the club who is not happy."

There was better news for David Corkery, the Bristol flanker. He was called into Ireland's squad for next Wednesday's pre-Five Nations training session and is clear favourite to start the match with Scotland in Dublin on 7 February.