Rugby Union: Club owners threaten court action

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The Independent Online
NO MORE posturing, no more idle threats. The final battle lines were drawn across England's bloody rugby landscape yesterday as the big-time professional clubs, the Roundheads of the domestic game's civil war, challenged the Cavalier establishment of Twickenham in the only language late-20th century sport appears to understand. Namely: "Make some concessions, or we'll see you in court".

The assault, both bold and articulate, was led by the two most successful club owners in the country, Sir John Hall, of Newcastle and Nigel Wray, of Saracens. Together with Donald Kerr, the chairman of the English Rugby Partnership, they launched their long-awaited "charter", a vision of the future that contradicts the Club England philosophy of Fran Cotton, the vice-chairman of the Rugby Football Union, at almost every turn. If Cotton sticks to his guns - and there is no doubting his intention in that respect - the clubs will seek his head on a High Court platter.

Wray, perhaps the most thoughtful of the multi-millionaire owner-investors involved in Premiership rugby, said the fight was on for the hearts and minds of the English sporting public. "If the RFU want club rugby in this country to continue, they're going a funny way about it," said the richest son of Old Millhillians RFC.

"I might turn it round the other way by saying if the RFU want to exterminate the club game, they're absolutely spot-on. The clubs are facing a situation in which their regulators, the Union, are also their direct competitors. It is crazy, a nonsense. They are asking us to build businesses on crumbling sand.

"If the RFU would only drop their fixation with divisional rugby, which has been shown to be a non-starter more times than any of us can remember, and allow the clubs to contract their players with international commitments fully protected, we might get somewhere. As it stands, though, the Cotton stance, if I can call it that, puts the clubs out of business.

"Fran simply has to remove the club element of his plan from the table. If he doesn't, I can see us in court."

While Wray, one of the Premiership doves, was more militant than usual, his hawkish partner from Newcastle was characteristically up-front. "It's time we all came out and told people where we are going on this one," Hall said. "We've all postured ourselves to a standstill. Now it's down to business.

"We've taken Newcastle from an average crowd of 800 to something close to 5,000 - that's what we've done, not Fran Cotton or the England Test team - and we'll take our right to exist and prosper to whatever lengths we feel necessary.

"We are going to get our rights through European legislation in two years anyway - we know that through the best legal advice - but we'd like to be able to sort it now through honest, straightforward negotiation with the ruling body. If they don't want to do it that way, fine. We'll be here in two years' time to do it the hard way."

The charter establishes a number of principles that will be anathema to the current RFU hierarchy: the clubs want to operate as an "independent organisation" under the auspices of the Union and intend to negotiate their own broadcasting and sponsorship deals; they want to retain all leading players on club contracts; they want to set up a new European club competition managed by the participants and expand the Premiership to accommodate 14 teams; and they want to shift the Five Nations' Championship to a new end-of-season position in April and May.

"What we have at the moment is a bad marriage," said Kerr, a prominent figure at Harlequins and an old hand in the club-Union conflagration. "The Union wants total control while we want our freedom. We have enough capable businessmen on board now to make it happen."

Cotton and company beg to differ, of course. The men in wigs are already counting their prospective earnings.