Rugby Union: Brittle's pledge to investigate

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Cliff Brittle, arch bogeyman of England's professional clubs during the civil war that almost brought domestic rugby to its knees last season, yesterday donned the mantle of honest broker in an effort to avoid an outbreak of renewed hostilities.

The much-maligned chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board promised to investigate allegations that his representatives had attempted to persuade leading players to ditch their club contracts in favour of legally binding agreements with the RFU.

Rob Andrew, the former England outside-half and current director of rugby at Newcastle, claimed last week that "underhand" approaches had been made, aimed at "wresting control away from the clubs". Brittle reacted quickly, corres- ponding with the 24-strong membership of the Allied Dunbar Premiership to reassure them of his good faith. "I take the accusations extremely seriously," he said, before calling on Andrew to produce evidence in support of his comments.

"This needs to be investigated," said Kim Deshayes, the chief executive of English Rugby Partnership, which administers the major club competitions. "If Rob Andrew is right in what he says, it would be an area for considerable concern."

The RFU are preparing to announce a new backer for the national knock- out cup, a competition currently unsponsored following Pilkington's withdrawal from the rugby marketplace. Carlsberg-Tetley, the brewing giants, are the current favourites, having offered in excess of pounds 1.2m annually. Barclays Bank and another brewing company, Bass, are also among the bidders.

One man in need of a stiff drink yesterday was Greg Smith, who predictably resigned as Australia's national coach in the wake of the their 60-point reverse against South Africa in Pretoria last weekend. John O'Neill, managing director of the Australian Rugby Union, said: "The pressure of constant speculation has taken its toll on Greg's family life and his health. He's decided that this cannot continue and I fully support that decision."

Smith guided his team to a "Celtic Slam" in Scotland, Ireland and Wales last autumn but failed to cut any ice in the more demanding Tri-Nations series with New Zealand and the Springboks and the depressing events at Loftus Versfeld finally forced him to fall on his sword. Rod Macqueen, Canberra-based coach of the wildly successful ACT outfit, is an obvious candidate to take over. Other names in the hat include Alec Evans, a former assistant coach of the Wallabies who has just started a second stint at Cardiff, and John Connolly, Macqueen's Super 12 counterpart at Queensland.

England's annual Cook Cup match in Australia next July will be preceded by a demanding five-match trek around New Zealand. The itinerary includes two Tests against the All Blacks, in Dunedin on 20 June and in Auckland seven days later.

ENGLAND ITINERARY: 13 June: New Zealand A, Hamilton; 16 June: New Zealand Academy, Invercargill. 20 June: NEW ZEALAND, Dunedin. 23 June: New Zealand Maori, Rotorua. 27 June: NEW ZEALAND, Auckland.