Rugby Union: Clubs cutting their own throats

Chris Rea fears the withdrawal from Europe is a threat to the game's lifeline
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The Independent Online
WHAT are we to make of the English clubs' latest attempt to hijack the game and hold it to ransom? Is it about money or is it a matter of restructuring the season to suit their needs? The money on offer to the clubs from Heineken next season promises a 50 per cent increase on this year, lifting it to pounds 3m. On top of that, all travel expenses will be paid and the clubs can retain the gate money. It sounds like a good deal to me.

So far as the structure is concerned, a formula for rescheduling the season was recently worked out between the Rugby Football Union and English Rugby Partnership which, after initial agreement, was rejected by the clubs' organisation. In any case, no matter what alterations are made, the clubs will not, for the foreseeable future, be able to put enough bums on seats to pay the high wages they have burdened themselves with.

I suspect therefore that this latest sulking session is less about money and structure than it is about power and control of the English game. ERP is in complete disarray. It is leaderless and hopelessly divided on a number of issues. As ever in such circumstances, the reasonable voice of the majority is being drowned out by the bullying, bellowing minority who in this instance see the European Cup as the clubs' most lucrative property and as a consequence their most potent bargaining tool.

Sir John Hall has, of course, never made any secret of the fact that the clubs should be free to negotiate their own television deals and, if he had his way, they would be allowed to negotiate all the RFU's other deals as well. Unfortunately for him he is likely to be thwarted. One of the few well-considered clauses in the RFU's deal with Sky (and that was only inserted at Cliff Brittle's insistence) is that Sky cannot screen any cross-border competition without the full approval of the governing body and, despite the fact that there is still the rump of the old guard on the RFU committee who would happily see the destruction of the game in Britain, including the Five Nations' Championship, if it meant defeat for Brittle, hell will freeze over before the RFU surrender that particular right of veto.

There is no doubt that the leading clubs in England do have legitimate concerns. The structure of the season is chaotic. They also have a case when it comes to their representation in Europe. Why, they argue, should England, with their vastly superior numbers, have just four clubs eligible for the competition when the comparatively small playing communities of Scotland and Ireland have three? Moreover, these sides are representing provinces and districts, and are therefore funded by the unions, whereas it is the clubs who must bear the financial burden in England and Wales. These are valid points although this Little Englander attitude would carry more weight if the Premiership clubs hadn't spent the last couple of seasons trawling the world for players and splashing out serious money in the process.

Equally insidious and damaging to the long-term future of the English game is the establishment of the nursery scheme to develop the best of Auckland's youth at Blackheath. And, if as is rumoured, Cardiff intend to buy Bristol then the Welsh will have an English stable for their Trojan horse. Strangely, though, there is not a peep of protest from the clubs on this.

If there are legitimate grievances in England it is not difficult to catch the whiff of mounting panic in Scotland and Ireland where the drain of top players to the lush English pastures has devastated the domestic game in both countries. The players who have been seduced by riches beyond their wildest dreams are the very heroes with the talent and influence to attract and stimulate succeeding generations of youngsters. If Europe, which is their last remaining lifeline to survival in the higher echelons of the game, were to be denied them, there would be serious fears for the future of the Five Nations' Championship. For some, however, the concept of a Five Nations competition centres round England, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia and powerful forces are at present at work to create such a world elite. But this global shrinking would ultimately mean the end of rugby as a front-rank sport in this country.

The last time Scotland beat England was in 1990, since when the countries have met eight times, England's longest winning sequence since the start of fixtures between the countries in 1871. Given the increasing gap in standards, it is not too hard to imagine another seven years without a Scottish win and if each season the championship is reduced to a contest between England and France, with Wales occasionally poaching a win, it will become meaningless and will lose all public appeal. Inevitably, it would suffer the same fate as the British football championship.

Alas, sensitivity to the needs and interests of others is not one of ERP's strong points and some of the statements originating from the deep south in recent weeks have merely reinforced Celtic suspicions. In an interview in these columns a fortnight ago, Tony Hallett, the newly appointed chief executive of Richmond, offered the breathtakingly arrogant view that the other Five Nations countries should agree to hold their training sessions at the same time as England in order that the disruption to the English clubs should be kept to a minimum. What a damn cheek coming as it did from one of the men who very nearly scuppered the entire international championship as a result of the ill-starred deal with Sky. And, from the same club their president, David Buchanan, asserted that it was about time the English clubs began to look after their own interests. Many of us believe that this is precisely what they have been doing since the game went professional.

It is a bit rich for a club which is spending vast sums of money on overseas and non-English qualified players and who so far this season have yet to contribute a single player to the national side to bleat about the RFU's indifference to their plight. The clubs have to understand and accept that their future and their fortunes are inextricably linked with the future and the fortunes of the international game and that, in European terms, is not the Heineken Cup but a vibrant and competitive Five Nations' Championship.