Rugby Union: Borders coming down in Europe

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The Independent Online
Forget talk of BSkyB bidding incredible sums for the European Cup. That particular competition is in its last year, because if an ambitious plan announced in London yesterday reaches fruition Europe's leading clubs will be playing each other in cross-border league and cup competitions under the auspices of the newly formed European Rugby Federation.

The ERF has invited broadcasters to bid to televise the new events following talks involving clubs from England, Wales, Italy and France.

However, the problems inherant in cross-border competition were seen yesterday when the Irish union expressed dismay at London Irish's refusal to release players for European Cup duty with Ulster and Leinster.

The announcement makes no mention of the 1999 World Cup, which has released two different formats in the last 24 hours. The upshot of it all is that England, Scotland and Ireland have no idea yet whether they will be in a group which includes South Africa, New Zealand or Australia. They will have to wait until November 1998 before the final decision is taken.

Excluding the four seedings, it is assumed that Australia will be Pacific 1; Argentina, Canada or the United States will be America 1, while Europe 4, 5 and 6 can be permed from Romania, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The assumption is that Europe 1, 2 and 3 will be England, Ireland and Scotland, not necessarily in that order; the other Pacific nations are Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa, while Japan are favourites to be Asia 1.

There are five pools whose winners will be joined by the winners of three play-offs, which will be between the Pool runners-up and the best placed third team, in the quarter-finals.

Vernon Pugh, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, last night called for unity at all costs in an address to 80 delegates from 61 of the IRB's 71 affiliated unions in Rome. "We must ensure rugby does not become so divided that the top end is totally separated from the game below it," Pugh said. "While we all know that part of the game now is, and will be maintained as a full-time professional sport, the majority of our participants will be involved for recreation and enjoyment. In the year 2000, when we look back, we must still recognise it as one game."

Pugh, who doubles as the chairman of the Welsh rugby union, also left nobody in any doubt where he feels the power in the game should rest.

"The IRB is your governing body. Its authority has to be accepted by all: unions, clubs, provinces and other rugby bodies whether great or small, strong or weak," Pugh said. "What we are offered is the opportunity to make a quantum leap in our sport, to ensure we go from between six and 10 strong, or reasonably strong, playing countries to at least 20."

While the 1999 Rugby World Cup is set to produce a bumper financial return of pounds 60m, doubling the revenue earned from South Africa last year, the issue of providing prize money was debated at the Rugby World Cup board meeting in the Italian capital earlier in the week and will be expanded upon by the full council meeting in London on Tuesday.

WORLD CUP Groupings: Pool A: South Africa, England/Scotland/Ireland, Europe 4, Repe- chage 2. Pool B: New Zealand, England/Scotland/Ireland, America 2, Repechage 1. Pool C: France, Pacific 2, Europe 5, Africa 1. Pool D: Wales, America 1, Pacific 3, Europe 6. Pool E: Pacific 1, England/Scotland/Ireland, America 3, Asia 1.

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