Rugby union: Cavaliers to laugh loudest in sport's civil war

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The Independent Online
As civil wars go, the struggle for supremacy in our two big sports may lack the ruthlessness with which the Roundheads and the Cavaliers spilled each other's blood three centuries ago but there are similarities in the conflicts between club and country that could yet expand to produce a slaughter that even Cromwell wouldn't disown.

It would never do to compare the government of a game with the government of a nation - it is far more serious than that - but the skirmishes now being fought in football and rugby could soon develop into full-scale battles for control that could result in more lasting change than ever Edgehill and Naseby managed.

Although the rebellious mutterings in football are of much older origin, it hardly needs pointing out that the situation in rugby union is far more volatile this weekend and the new season is less likely to be heralded by the clatter of studs down the tunnel than the rumble of heavy artillery being rolled into place.

Before the big barrage begins, however, it might be opportune to decide whose side we're on. Public opinion has counted for little so far but you never know. Fortunately, for the purposes of understanding why they are moving into combat positions, it so happens that the nomenclature of 1642 neatly applies to today's warring factions.

The Parliamentarians in this case are the ruling bodies and, although close examination suggests that square-heads might be a more appropriate description, we'll stick with the old name seeing that they are exceedingly puritanical in their administrations apart from when they are arranging their travel, accommodation and refreshments.

No doubt, the modern Roundheads will be more than happy to see their opponents, the big club owners, saddled with the name of Cavaliers on the grounds that they are no more than a bunch of flash Harrys whose place in the game owes everything to richness and nothing to long service in cold committee rooms.

That the two could ever co-exist for long in the commercial maelstrom of modern sport is a ridiculous notion given what is at stake. The crunch has arrived and only a genuine desire to seek compromise is going to lessen the impact of the sporting bust-up of the century.

Rugby is first to experience this trial of strength because the game is still in the early throes of acquainting itself with the pecking order of professionalism. Football possesses a similar discord over clashing priorities but the roots of the problem are so deep they will take a little longer to rise to the surface and, in any case, there is less pressure to seek an early showdown.

When Cardiff and Swansea defied the final ultimatum of the Welsh Rugby Union to sign a 10-year loyalty agreement they did so in the certain conviction that otherwise they would have surrendered most of their control over future playing and earning opportunities. By pledging to play them in a season of "friendlies", the English clubs are not only providing brotherly support but widening the struggle that will decide the future shape of British rugby.

It means, alas, that events off the field will continue to demand our attention but at least the game itself has an even chance of fighting back now that the season has been given another dimension. How much better, and more peacefully creative, it would have been had the original suggestion for a British League involving 14 English, four Welsh and two Scottish clubs been adopted 10 days ago.

The WRU's reasons for blocking this were first centred on the clubs' legal submissions to the European Commission seeking greater commercial freedom from the International Board and then on organisational difficulties.

Neither was an impossible obstacle and a temporary truce in the interests of the game, the players and the fans would have allowed both sides time to attempt to fashion a compatible future. Slim as that possibility might have been, it was preferable to the void that has now been forced by offering Swansea and Cardiff no reasonable alternative to the route they have taken.

The two Welsh clubs have been accused of selfishness by some of those they have left behind but it is the nature of clubs to look after their own interests and their supporters, and those of other clubs, will be excited at the quality of the opposition to be seen at the Arms Park and St Helens. It is still possible that the unions will find a way to block the friendlies, but the clubs are fully prepared and ready to carry on their fight for freedom on any battlefield the unions chose.

What they seek is a degree of autonomy that has long been in existence in football, through the League and the Premiership, and if the domestic scene in that game has never been stronger it is largely because of the progress made by the top clubs. The momentum of that progress is now drawing them towards a European League and in the week before the season began it was revealed that negotiations for a breakaway of several leading teams were in an advanced stage.

It is significant that over the past few days Uefa have themselves been in discussion with the organisation behind the new league. The associations realise the power of the clubs and that the only way they can keep a measure of control is to let some rope out.

Ultimately, of course, the basic issue is who owns the players. Recent signs suggest that the players are becoming increasingly adept at owning themselves but the clubs are contesting the question of priority claim on their services. As in rugby, both clubs and countries have to earn their income from the same batch of quality players and in most cases there is a distressingly low number of them. For their sakes alone, a more sensible allocation of their physical capabilities is needed urgently.

During France 98, Franz Beckenbauer predicted that future World Cups will be fought out by clubs and not countries. Since many rich clubs are capable of buying better teams than most nations can piece together, that is an outrageous idea only to super-patriots. Given the choice most fans would prefer success to be visited on their club rather than their country.

In any forthcoming battle, therefore, the clubs have a superior fire- power that the governing bodies should beware. Clubs have introduced their fair share of buffoons into sporting ownership - and we have discovered that not every multi- millionaire is a Mensa candidate - but theirs is probably the truest motivation. We must always have independent ruling bodies but there must be a limit to what they rule.

Whoever considers themselves to be in control of football must do something about the transfer market. I refer not to the size of the fees but the timing and fairness of the transactions. When Aston Villa sold Dwight Yorke to Manchester United last week for pounds 12.6m, the deal brought drastic reactions from the Villa manager John Gregory, who managed to resist an urge to shoot the player, and from chairman Doug Ellis, who accused United of relentlessly tapping the player over a long period.

My sympathies lie more with the supporters who paid good money for season tickets in the belief that Yorke was part of the package. Have we not arrived at the time when clubs should cease trading before the start of the season and for at least three months manage with the same squad? The present open-ended system is prey to misbehaviour and at the very least can create lasting enmities. Today Villa fans will be given 20,000 of the aptly named Yorkie bars as a consolation by the Premiership sponsors Nestles.

It is a smart marketing move. When Yorke returns to Villa Park with Manchester United I suggest Crunchies will be more appropriate.