Rugby Union: Board's day to save the game

Chris Rea says ruin awaits if the clubs are not brought to heel in Dublin
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The Independent Online
YOU will forgive me if I do not join in the rush to acclaim Newcastle's achievement in winning the Allied Dunbar Premiership title should they beat Harlequins later today. Rob Andrew, having been given the tools, has done the job and, win or lose at the Stoop, he and his team are to be congratulated on that. But there the plaudits should end. No club has contributed more to the hopeless plight in which the Rugby Football Union now finds itself than Newcastle under Sir John Hall.

If it were just England suffering it would be bad enough, but there are other casualties of this civil war. The Scottish, Irish and Welsh squads have all been grievously weakened by the unavailability of players contracted to English clubs. The argument that the mass withdrawals from the summer tours are the result of unavoidable injury is manifestly not the case. Many of them have been turning out for their clubs for weeks. The truth is, quite simply, that the players are unavailable because of the demands, either physical or contractual, placed upon them by their clubs and, as a result, international rugby is being grossly devalued.

This is suicidal for the game in the long term, yet the RFU have knowingly signed up to an agreement which will guarantee this disastrous outcome. A number of the clubs believe that the agreement is totally unworkable and are already talking about changing it, no doubt with the RFU's full compliance. It beggars belief that they put their names to a legally binding document without seeking legal advice, presumably because they knew that no lawyer worth his or her salt could possibly recommend its acceptance. Even more cynically, the RFU did it because they knew that at the forthcoming Special General Meeting called by Fran Cotton, it would have been thrown out. But if the RFU's legal advisers have been under- employed in the past week or so, the clubs' lawyers have been working overtime, firing off letters to Cliff Brittle, warning him that he is still bound by the injunction placed on him following the publication of the clubs' submission to the European Court.

This is nothing more than an attempt to gag Brittle when he and other representatives from the RFU come before the International Rugby Board in Dublin tomorrow, to explain their relationship with the clubs. If, as we are constantly being told, the clubs are merely seeking clarification of the IRB's regulations by this submission, their protection of its contents verges on the paranoid.

The whole world, it seems, is out of step except England and their sycophantic media. One can only imagine what the reaction would have been if, as a result of Brittle's policies, Clive Woodward had unveiled such a substandard squad last week. There would have been pages of savage criticism and hours of outraged chatter devoted to his rank incompetence, and demands for his immediate removal from the Board of Management. Ditto, if New Zealand or Australia had dispatched similarly depleted sides to this country. Instead of that, there is an outpouring of self-righteous indignation against these countries for demanding to know why the RFU are such willing partners in a process aimed at destabilising the world game.

Every opportunity to diffuse the justifiable fury from the Southern Hemisphere is being seized. John Hart and Rod MacQueen, the respective coaches of New Zealand and Australia, who have been much less forthright than their chief executives in their condemnation of the England touring party, and have warned against complacency, are being held up as the voices of reason and sanity. But anyone who believes that Hart and MacQueen consider England a threat must also believe that Woodward is overjoyed at taking his raw recruits Down Under. The man is devastated. All his work this past season has gone to waste.

The meeting in Dublin tomorrow is certainly the most important in the history of the IRB and very probably in the history of the game. The IRB's representatives know that unless they take the strongest possible action, the consequences for the game could be catastrophic. The sanctions they will no doubt be considering will include:

l The continuation of the ban on all playing contact with England's top clubs.

l The refusal by overseas unions to release contracted players for the Sanyo Cup Challenge match at Twickenham on Saturday.

l Remove all World Cup matches scheduled for Twickenham in 1999 to other venues.

l Send weakened sides on international tours to England or withdraw from tours altogether.

l Expel England from the World Cup.

l Expel England from the IRB.

There are, in addition, a number of other sanctions targeted specifically at England's leading clubs, and the likelihood is that they will be excluded from a revamped European competition for at least the next four years at a cost to the RFU and to the clubs of well over pounds 15m in lost revenue. Gregor Townsend is one player reported to be unhappy about the clubs' decision to boycott Europe next season and is apparently considering a move to Brive in France. Others may very well follow him, if not across the water, then back across the borders.

That rugby union is in turmoil is not in doubt. That it is heading towards ruin is also a fact with Blackheath, the world's oldest club who have gone into liquidation, the latest victims but most certainly not the last. The IRB have it in their power tomorrow to pull the game out of its downward spiral, but they must understand that to solve the problem they must once and for all remove the root cause of the problem, and the only way they can do that is to give Cotton the ammunition he needs to put before the RFU membership who have been deceived for long enough by the vast majority of those men who are supposed to be representing them.