Rugby Union: British league tops new agenda

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By Chris Hewett

THERE HAVE been dozens of false starts and innumerable crashes and collisions along the way, but European rugby may finally be about to drag itself out of the pits. Brian Baister's energetic pursuit of a solution to the impasse undermining the professional game in the northern hemisphere has sent the wheels within wheels spinning faster than the slicks on Michael Schumacher's Ferrari and, by the end of today, three years of political squabbling could be consigned to the dustbin of sporting history at the stroke of a pen.

Baister, the newly-elected chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board, was due in Cardiff to meet senior administrators from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. There was only one item on the agenda: the immediate creation of a British league involving all 14 English Premiership clubs and up to eight sides from the so-called "Celtic fringe". Agreement would not only ensure a hugely beneficial realignment of the domestic game but also pave the way for England's return to European competition.

"We have a pilot scheme to add six clubs to the Allied Dunbar Premiership, which would be organised in two leagues or conferences, with the top sides going into a play-off competition," said Baister yesterday. "At the moment the additions would include four Welsh clubs and the two Scottish super- districts, Edinburgh Reivers and Glasgow Caledonians, but there would be no barrier to Ireland providing entrants.

"If this got off the ground for a one-off season we would then go ahead with a serious debate geared to sorting out the whole future of rugby in Europe below international level. There is still a strong possibility that England will participate in the European Cup this coming season; to my mind, it would be a nonsense if we were not to join in any event involving other European or British clubs."

Baister described the current state of negotiations as "extremely delicate" but he is bolstered by the support of the English clubs, the good wishes of the senior sides in Wales and a resounding vote of confidence from north of the border. Duncan Paterson, executive chairman of the Scottish Rugby Union, said the case for the early establishment of a British and Irish league was "irrefutable", adding that a successful outcome to the talks was "essential if northern hemisphere rugby is to make up lost ground on New Zealand, South Africa and Australia".

An agreement today could solve in an instant the potential fixture problems of the two Scottish districts, facilitate a conclusion to the long-running legal dispute between Cardiff and their own national union and allow the all-powerful English clubs an easy escape from their boycott of the Heineken Cup - a serious tactical error only compounded by last week's decision of the French clubs to turn their backs on a breakaway cross- border tournament after heavy lobbying from their own president and a financial sweetener from the organisers of the established competition.

Crucially, a clear majority of the most influential English club owners are behind the Baister initiative. "It's a win-win option and I'm utterly convinced that the idea of a British league could be sold to each and every club in the two Allied Dunbar Premiership leagues," said one knowledgeable club insider yesterday. "What is more, we are now ready to go back into Europe on two clear understandings: firstly, that the organisers produce a realistic fixture schedule and, secondly, that the administrative machinery is overhauled in time for the 1999-2000 campaign."

The English clubs are confident that Allied Dunbar, their major sponsors, would jump at the chance of financing a British league instead of an all- English premiership, especially as the best Anglo-Welsh fixtures still generate such spectacular levels of public interest. They are also hopeful that BSkyB will continue to invest, although the broadcasters have been unnervingly quiet about their rugby commitment for the new season.

Much now depends on the role played by Vernon Pugh. The Welsh QC, an executive member of the International Rugby Board and a trenchant critic of the hard-line Premiership clubs, may yet up the ante by insisting that the English clubs withdraw their controversial application to the European Commission for adjudication on commercial and operating rights.

"The Welsh don't do anything without Pugh's say-so, so the ball is in his court," said one Premiership coach yesterday. "We're ready and willing to compromise. If he doesn't feel able to do the same, we'll be back in the mire."