Rugby Union: Brittle's bombshell will test boycott

ENGLAND'S defiantly insubordinate professional clubs have been put on the spot with a vengeance by Cliff Brittle, their No 1 bogeyman at Twickenham. Brittle yesterday dropped the diplomatic equivalent of a depth charge into the muddy waters of rugby politics by announcing sweeping changes to the Heineken Cup format and by so doing, he ensured that the clubs' united stand in boycotting next season's competition would be tested to breaking point.

The changes address the three broad areas - fixture scheduling, cash distribution and qualification - that lay at the heart of the clubs' discontent as the momentum towards a boycott gathered before Christmas.

Brittle has written to Donald Kerr, chairman of English First Division Rugby, to request an immediate meeting, saying: "I hope a speedy outcome will result in the return of English clubs to Europe, for our ambition is to ensure that Bath are able to defend their championship next season."

Tom Kiernan and his fellow tournament directors have unanimously agreed to dismantle the six-week block of Heineken dates next autumn in favour of a mix of domestic league and European fixtures. They have also pledged to dish out a minimum pounds 17m to the English participants over the next four years and will introduce a more meritocratic qualification policy for the 1999-2000 competition. Under the proposed system, English clubs could fill up to 10 of the 20 available places.

All hunky-dory, then. What are you waiting for, Donald? Actually, things are nowhere near as happy-go-lucky as Brittle would have them seem. Senior club officials have repeatedly indicated that they would not even contemplate returning to the Heineken fold unless resignations were forthcoming from the board and besides, they are now certain to accuse Brittle of disingenuousness because his statement makes no mention of plans to force Fran Cotton's controversial "draft" system on to the competing teams.

Cotton was in bullish mood yesterday, pronouncing: "I hope this proves to the English clubs that we are working for them even in their absence. I hope they will sign up to a lengthy commitment to the European Cup and dispel the myth that the RFU is anti-club in Europe."

Kerr, perhaps understandably, was more guarded. "I haven't seen the detail of this so I can't really comment," he said. "But I think it would be very difficult for us to go back in without fundamental changes both to the way the competition is run and to who does the running."

However, he knows better than anyone that Bath, the champions, are desperate to defend their crown - a fact effectively confirmed yesterday by Tom Sheppard, the West Country club's company director.

"I am encouraged by today's developments," he said. "We have stood shoulder to shoulder with the other Premiership clubs on this matter, but this sign of possible progress is good. Anything that ERC (the organising body of the Heineken Cup) and the RFU can do in moving towards resolving this issue has to be good news."

As if Kerr and his fellow Premiership power-brokers did not have enough to think about, they were also on the receiving end of a vitriolic bombardment from south of the equator. Both New Zealand and Australia turned on the decision of Keith Barwell, the Northampton owner, to bar his players from touring with England this summer.

"This is the ugly face of private ownership of rugby union clubs," fumed the general manager of the Australian Test side, Matt Carroll. "We want the best available teams out here this year. The RFU has to stand up to this."

There was more of the same from Rob Fisher, the chairman of the New Zealand RFU, and Mike Banks, the All Blacks team manager. "There would be no point England sending an under-strength team that won't fill our stadiums," Fisher said, while Banks added: "There's a principle here. Any time you play a Test for your country you like the opposition to be the best of the country you're confronting."

All of which served to prove just how short some memories can be. In 1983, New Zealand toured England and Scotland without their entire front five and both first-choice half-backs. What was more, they managed only a draw at Murrayfield before losing at Twickenham.