Rugby Union: Bedford start fight of their lives

Tim Glover finds the popular favourites for extinction bullish about their future
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The Independent Online
TWELVE INTO 10 won't go, but the assumption that Bedford and Sale would be the fall guys in the formation of the British league is erroneous, according to the parties involved. Having already overseen the demise of Richmond and London Scottish in reducing the Allied Dunbar Premiership to 12 clubs, Tom Walkinshaw, the chairman of English First Division rugby, wants a further reduction, but there are no volunteers.

Walkinshaw - his original plan featured only eight English clubs but that would have left him knee deep in blood - is looking at a league of 16 members,10 English, four Welsh and two Scottish. It was thought that the bottom two clubs in the Premiership at the end of the season would be dropped, but that is not how Bedford see it.

"It will not necessarily be done on playing strength or results," Geoff Irvine, a Bedford director, said. "If there was a franchise system whereby clubs had to meet certain criteria, then Harlequins and London Irish would be in a tricky position. You can't have a franchise with two clubs playing at the same ground."

Walkinshaw and his 11 disciples from the Premiership voted unanimously at a meeting last week to kick on with a British league, even though it means that at least two were signing their own death warrants. But then, with a two-thirds majority necessary to proceed, anybody voting against would have been doing the same thing.

The meeting was held at Heathrow airport, presumably so the aircraft noise could deter any attempt at eavesdropping. There has already been a major breach of security - Walkinshaw, a Formula One player as well as the owner of Gloucester, has imposed his equivalent of a D notice on proceedings - with a Judas leaking information to a newspaper. The culprit has not yet been identified which means the meetings are being conducted in an atmosphere of suspicion. And supposition.

Bernie Ecclestone, the head of Formula One and a running mate of Walkinshaw's, is the prime suspect as the promoter behind an pounds 85m deal, guaranteeing each club pounds 1m a year for five years, plus pounds 1m in prize money. When Chris Wright, the man behind Wasps, asked Walkinshaw the identity of the promoter he was kept in the dark. Again, the supposition is that Sky would televise a British league, but it is understood that a terrestrial broadcaster, probably ITV, will have a major role.

There are big obstacles, not least the impression at Twickenham that if a couple of Formula One moguls are behind the wheel, the club game at Premiership level would be driven out of the Rugby Football Union's jurisdiction. EFDR is moving quickly (the clubs will file a formal application to join a British league within a month), and the RFU has already received draft proposals from Rob Andrew's Club England working party which will be circulated to all Premiership One and Two clubs during the next few days.

However, when Walkinshaw attempted to present the concept to the RFU on Friday he was told to put it in the post, presumably along with his Christmas card. "To have a situation where the clubs are barred from talking to their union about something as important as the future of professional rugby in this country is ridiculous," Walkinshaw said. Equally ridiculous is that Walkin-shaw, who has kept his cards close to his chest, should have pitched up at Twickenham and demanded a meeting without formal notice. He should have co-operated with Andrew, whose proposals will be considered by the RFU's management board at its meeting on 22 December. Nevertheless, the danger for the RFU is that the new league will go ahead next season with or without the union's blessing. On Friday, Peter Thomas, the owner of Cardiff, was already talking about a "done deal". Not surprisingly, Cecil Duckworth, the owner of Worcester, whose heart is set on promotion, takes a dim view. "Last season they reduced the Premiership from 14 to 12, and now they want to play in a league of 16," he said. "It's ludicrous. I can't imagine the RFU will allow this to happen."

In addition, nobody has spoken to the poor bloody infantry. "We were told we would be consulted, but we haven't heard a word," Damian Hopley, secretary of the Professional Rugby Players' Association, said. "We want a season of 30 to 35 matches that would give us parity with the southern hemisphere and prolong the player's career. With a British league, European Cup, domestic cup and internationals, a top player could be in 50 matches. Not only couldn't he survive but would people watch that much rugby? The message from the World Cup was quality not quantity. With a combined vision this thing could be thrashed out in a day but instead of working for the greater good it comes down to egos."

Walkinshaw, however, denies there would be overkill. He mantains, without explaining how, that an international player would have no more than 30 games a season, including Test matches. If that were the case, such a player would appear in only two thirds of the new league programme and not at all in the European or domestic cups.

The players are not alone on the sidelines. Allied Dunbar, who have put pounds 12m into English rugby, would also like a call. "We would be very interested in sponsoring a new league but no proposition has been put to us," said a spokeswoman.

As for Hopley's point about crowd support, the figures this season for some of the Welsh-Scottish league matches have been low to subterranean. Malcolm Pearce, the chairman of Bristol, has asked supporters for their views. "Their voice should be heard," he said. "My opinion is not set in stone." There are already signs that fans are discriminating. "I don't know of anybody who went to France when Bristol played Dax," Don Pritchard, chairman of the Bristol supporters' club, said.

Roger Pickering, who represents the Six Nations' Committee and the European Cup, was also sceptical. "The order of priorities is the World Cup, the Six Nations, the European Cup and domestic rugby," he said.

The entrance fee to the British league will be pounds 1m and Bedford maintain they are still in the game. The club was saved a couple of months ago when 3,000 people responded to an appeal to buy shares. "It's our duty to make every effort to provide the people of Bedford with the best rugby available," Irvine said. "We also promised them we wouldn't waste their money.

"This is not just Walkinshaw's show. The clubs have given him a mandate and nobody's being forced into anything. Guys like Nigel Wray, Chris Wright and Keith Barwell will not be pushed around. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet. What happens when the final hymn is sung remains to be seen."