Rugby Union : Clubs back in breakaway mood

Union in disharmony: Tuesday sees the decisive meeting in the battle over the Five Nations. Chris Hewett reports
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England's leading rugby clubs are ready to man the barricades once again as a summer of sporting revolution enters its decisive phase this week. Fears over the re-negotiation of the Rugby Football Union's pounds 87.5m television deal with Sky has left the domestic game teetering on the brink of open warfare little more than a month before the start of the new season.

There will be so many power bases to protect and so many vested interests to pursue when talks between the four home unions resume on Tuesday (France have negotiated their own television rights for more than a decade) that whatever agreement is eventually struck, someone is going to feel sorely aggrieved. If that someone turns out to be Epruc, the English clubs' organisation representing virtually the whole of Courage Leagues One and Two, the threat of a breakaway will be back on the agenda.

The Welsh - and by extension the Irish and the Scots - will insist on Tuesday that the Sky monies be shared equally between the home nations. Under the present arrangements, England have more of Rupert Murdoch's cash than the other three countries put together, with pounds 22.5m earmarked for the clubs over a five-year span.

"It sounds a great deal of money, but in reality it is barely enough," insisted David Tyler, a leading administrator at Bristol and an Epruc insider.

"The clubs would be enraged if a single penny of that sum were to be negotiated away by the RFU on Tuesday. While we want this matter resolved, we simply cannot afford to see our portion of the Sky deal sacrificed."

We are talking about pounds 375,000 per League One club per year. Take out of that our financial commitments to the second division clubs and the running costs of Epruc and in net terms we are not exactly rolling in money. Any reduction would be red rag to a bull; personally, I don't think the senior clubs would swallow a diluted financial deal as a result of an RFU climb down over the Five Nations issue."

Epruc are determined to hold the new RFU negotiating team, which includes their old enemy Cliff Brittle, to the original agreement as it affects the clubs. The chairman of Epruc, Donald Kerr, met with Sam Chisholm, the rugged and forthright chief executive of Sky, last week and club officials are confident that they would attract substantial backing from the satellite company if they finally bit the bullet and severed links with the RFU.

"All the indications are that Sky would go with the clubs if push came to shove," said one Epruc representative. "We would have no trouble whatsoever in funding a breakaway competition and fielding an alternative England team to participate at international level. We have always believed we could generate more money through our own efforts anyway. At some stage, we are going to have to decide whether our interests and those of the RFU are not entirely incompatible."

The clubs are aghast at the re-emergence of Brittle, the RFU executive chairman with whom they locked horns at the start of the summer and in effect marginalised last month at a showdown meeting in London. They are equally perturbed at the amount of flak being soaked up by the RFU secretary, Tony Hallett, who was instrumental in brokering the Sky deal and now finds himself off the new RFU negotiating panel.

Brittle's stance is typically confrontational. "We are in crisis," he said last week. "We will talk about the principle of TV negotiations and I would like to see Sky come back to the table and review their position. We have to get all the unions and the broadcasters together to find a way forward for the benefit of all."

In shorthand, that means he will oppose Sky's exclusive rights to the Five Nations games involving England and attempt to reach agreement with the under-funded Celts. It is the scenario the clubs fear most, for it would then be next to impossible for them to maintain anything approaching the levels of cash they have earmarked under the existing contract.

"As far as we are concerned, there are no principles on the table," Tyler said. "The only thing that should be up for discussion is the division of the monies. The RFU can do what they want with their pounds 65m so long as our portion of the Sky money is guaranteed. The deal has been signed and is legally binding and our share is stipulated within it. That should mean end of story, but we'll have to wait and see."

In the middle of the muddle: Five men who must make sense of the future

Vernon Pugh

Chairman of International Board, WRU

The Welshman is one of the most influential administrators in the game world-wide. Seen by the senior English clubs as a potential ally during their run-in with the Rugby Football Union earlier in the summer, the quietly efficient QC has never been a popular figure at Twickenham. A fierce critic of the existing Sky deal and certain to argue in favour of continued terrestrial television rights. A major player.

Cliff Brittle

Executive chairman of RFU

Tax exile who defeated Twickenham's candidate in the battle for executive chairmanship in March and proceeded to fight tooth and nail with the senior clubs over how the professional game should be implemented. Widely considered to have suffered a defeat last month when the RFU secretary, Tony Hallett, brokered an agreement with Epruc, but now back on centre-stage following his condemnation of the Sky deal.

Tom Kiernan

Chairman of Five Nations Committee

Former Ireland and British Lions full-back and one of the most revered figures in the game, Kiernan has led the assault on the Sky deal. Instinctively against any exclusive agreement with a satellite broadcaster, he has done his best to appeal to the English conscience. "There are no victors here, only losers," he said, announcing the four remaining unions had signed a 10-year agreement for a tournament without England.

Allan Hosie

SRU committee member

Former international referee who took charge of 18 Tests between 1973 and 1984. He has articulated the Scottish rage at England's perceived greed and arrogance in recent weeks, stating bluntly that "international rugby can continue without them". More conciliatory over the last week, he held out an olive branch by saying: "We are all rugby friends but we disagree about this issue - so far."

Sam Chisholm

Chief executive of Sky

New Zealand-born sports negotiator who cut his teeth with Kerry Packer's Channel Nine television network in Australia. Chisholm is one of the most formidable power brokers in world sport; he played a key role in piecing together Rupert Murdoch's buy-up of the southern hemisphere game, which resulted in the successful

Super 12 tournament and the present Tri-Nation series involving New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.