With well over pounds 200m of BSkyB money burning a hole in the negotiating table - no broadcasting cash will be released until a settlement is reached - Rugby Football Union officials met with delegates from English Professional Rugby Union Clubs in an effort to solve the political squabbling that has disrupted the domestic game for almost a year. It was to no avail; the RFU refused to accept Epruc amendments to its proposed agreement and the wheeling and dealing ended in stalemate.
Angry Epruc officials blamed "key RFU personnel" - a thinly veiled reference to Cliff Brittle, the governing body's executive chairman - and requested an opportunity to put their case to the full RFU committee.
Although the gap between the two sides is small it concerns the fine legal small print over broadcasting rights and cash distribution - the continued disagreements have left a number of clubs facing financial ruin. Second division strugglers Nottingham had signalled their desire to settle on the RFU's terms before yesterday's meeting but were reported last night to be fully supportive once again of the Epruc position. As one Epruc insider put it: "Brittle has managed the improbable in reuniting us right down the line."
If Epruc officials are not permitted to address the full RFU, who meet on Friday week, they have a number of weapons in their armoury. The most disruptive would be to withhold players from England duty. Although they have agreed not to interfere with the pre-Christmas matches against Italy, the New Zealand Barbarians and Argentina, the opening Five Nations game with Scotland in February is a different matter entirely.
Alternatively, they could go the whole hog and stage a breakaway from the Union, bank-rolling themselves via a fighting fund set up by the multi- millionaire backers of the richer, most militant clubs. These include the reigning double champions, Bath, Saracens and Newcastle.
News of the latest setback is certain to frustrate the England squad, who have been forced to prepare for the Italy game under a cloud of disruptions. The 21 chosen for the Twickenham opener on Saturday week have been offered RFU contracts with the maximum pounds 70,000 per man, but the vast majority of them have yet to sign.
Yesterday, Phil de Glanville, the new England captain, signalled his impatience. "In a perfect world , this would be settled ahead of the Italy game," he said, speaking before the latest failure of negotiations. "However, we are not in a perfect world, I would simply hope that this will be sorted by Christmas, so we can go into the Five Nations with a clean slate."
De Glanville's pledge,
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