Rugby Union: Clubs broker a brighter future for the new era

Chris Hewett, Rugby Union correspondent, calls for support throughout the game for Saturday's peace deal
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The Independent Online
All changed; changed utterly. Cliff Brittle may or may not know his Yeats, but the look on the face of the Rugby Football Union's executive chairman at Twickenham on Saturday suggested that, in his view, anarchy had indeed been "loosed upon the world".

Anarchy, or a new stability? The signing of the peace deal between the governing body of English rugby and the newly professionalised clubs of the top two Courage divisions, which took place before the Calcutta Cup match, certainly sends the domestic game into uncharted waters. Deep ones, too, for there is not a rugby man alive - not Brittle, not John Richardson, the RFU president, not Peter Wheeler of Leicester, not Sir John Hall of Newcastle - who can safely bank on the commercial viability of the sport.

But by brokering an agreement in the face of Brittle's grassroots-fuelled opposition, the game in England has at least given itself a chance. There was never going to be the slightest mileage in denying the senior clubs - those with big wage bills to service, ground improvements to finance and, as a result of their own high profiles, wider responsibilities to meet - a say in their own futures.

The whole raison d'etre of Newco, the body set up to administer rugby at the top end, is to establish a working link - an umbilical cord, if you like - between the committee rooms of the RFU and the boardrooms of the clubs. Brittle may think otherwise, but there is not, and never has been, a realistic alternative to the partnership that has now been ratified.

For all the scare stories pedalled by the Brittle-ites - and some of the ways in which disinformation was injected into the veins of the debate in the final frantic weeks of bargaining would have put the CIA to shame - it is most unlikely that Newco could take a decision capable of hurting the hundreds of amateur clubs that make up the great patchwork quilt of English rugby. Quite the opposite, in fact; now that both the RFU and the clubs have struck a mutually beneficial accord, the Old Muckyduckians and Beerbelly Barbarians of this world can expect to see financial support trickling through the system.

Brittle may yet call another special general meeting and ask his supporters to pass a vote of no confidence in the RFU negotiators. Any such vote would be calamitous, especially as BSkyB are preparing to rubber-stamp the pounds 270m broadcasting deal that has been burning a hole in the back pocket of the English game for six months or more. Rupert Murdoch's money has given New Zealand, South Africa and Australia a phenomenally effective platform from which to take the southern hemisphere game into the 21st century. More delay in Europe will leave us playing second-class rugby on second-class grounds in front of disillusioned crowds.

This season, we have seen some of the finest club rugby played north of the equator. The Heineken European Cup was the most sophisticated of tournaments, thrilling in its adventure and deeply impressive in its expertise. The Courage championship is the most open we have seen in a decade, its elite broadened beyond recognition.

And who made all this work? Not the governing bodies who declared the game open without even attempting to put in place a framework under which clubs could move towards professionalism through evolution rather than revolution; not the committee men who negotiated away one European Cup broadcasting deal and failed to clinch another until the pool phase of the competition was over; and not Cliff Brittle. Especially not Cliff Brittle.

Professional rugby in England has been made to work by the clubs. No one else. Now is the time to build on their achievement rather than wreck it.

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