Rugby Union: British League solution unveiled

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The Independent Online
ALMOST IN spite of itself, British rugby may just be inching towards a political solution cute enough to give all interested parties - the English, the Welsh, the club owners, the union administrators, the television moguls and the poor bloody infantry who actually have to play a game disfigured and discredited by three years of committee-room chicanery - most of what they want. An influential group of moderates, thought to include both the Northampton owner Keith Barwell and Terry Burwell, the operations director of the Rugby Football Union, are pushing for a two-conference system next season - a structure that would allow clubs to qualify for an elite 10-team Premiership starting in the autumn of 2000.

The strategy owes something to English cricket, which has set this summer aside for counties to compete for a place in a new first division the following year. By creating two 10-team conferences, complete with play- offs, the organisers could include all 14 Allied Dunbar Premiership One clubs, the four leading Welsh sides and, if they so wished, the two Scottish "super clubs", Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow Caledonians. Quite simply, the top five sides from each conference would make up the following year's top flight, with the rest forming a second Premiership division.

As one Twickenham insider said yesterday, the benefits would be legion. The system would allow the English clubs to abide by the promotion and relegation promises enshrined in the Mayfair Agreement and thus extricate themselves from the bottomless pit now being dug by Bristol, who are threatening to buy their way into the big time by purchasing the financially-embarrassed London Scottish. It would also give the Welsh a strong stake in the competition and, crucially, bring to an end the damaging dispute their Union is having with Cardiff and Swansea, who have effectively severed all links by playing rebel matches with their English brethren.

What is more, the new compact competition would create sufficient elbow room for a wholesale return to European competition; something that players, spectators and all but the least enlightened boardroom bully positively crave, especially in the light of Ulster's taste of rugby heaven in last weekend's cup semi-final victory over Stade Francais. "The important thing is to give the clubs due notice of exactly what they are playing for, and by using the conferences next season, which will be shortened by the World Cup anyway, we could set the goalposts in concrete and never have to move them again," said one source yesterday.

Brian Baister, the RFU chairman, has set a deadline of 31 January for the completion of all negotiations and the board of English First Division Rugby, the grouping of the 14 Premiership One clubs, meets in 10 days' time.

Agreement there would give the union representatives a little over a week to thrash out the final details and, given that failure to do so would leave the game in the mother of all messes, hopes are rising that common sense will finally prevail.

Burwell, whose influence over RFU policy was increased greatly as a result of last week's management reshuffle, was at pains yesterday to remove some of the sting from Bristol's brazen attempt to barge their way into Premiership One through the back door. "The integrity of the existing regulations applies: if Bristol are promoted, they will go into Premiership One," he insisted.

Meanwhile, the game rather than the politics made a brief foray into the spotlight yesterday with the draw for the last 16 of the Tetley's Bitter Cup. London Scottish, who as of last night were still in existence and, therefore, still in the competition, were drawn at home to their Stoop landlords, Harlequins.

West Hartlepool and Newcastle will fight out a derby tie in the north- east, always assuming that they do not merge in the interim, while Saracens, the holders, must travel to play renowned cup fighters Lydney, and Gloucester entertain this year's giant-killers, Henley. Most intriguingly of all, Conor O'Shea's inspired London Irish outfit return to Northampton, the scene of their remarkable five-try Premiership romp a week ago. It should be fun.

TETLEY'S BITTER CUP Fifth-round draw: Northampton v London Irish, Wasps v Waterloo, London Scottish v Harlequins, Gloucester v Henley, West Hartlepool v Newcastle, Richmond v Exeter, Leicester v Leeds, Lydney v Saracens. (Ties to be played 30 or 31 January).