Rugby Union: Clubs lay down law to the RFU

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The Independent Online
THIS TIME, it's serious. Ten days of fractious argument over the immediate formation of a British league, not to mention three long years of conflict between club and country, will come to a head at Twickenham today when England's leading professional outfits threaten the Rugby Football Union with what amounts to a unilateral declaration of independence. By this evening, the face of the game in these islands may have changed beyond all recognition.

Club owners and chief executives from English First Division Rugby, the umbrella organisation representing the top 14 Allied Dunbar Premiership sides, were meeting Brian Baister, the newly elected chairman of the RFU's management board, in emergency session in a final attempt to establish an elite 24-team cross-border tournament in time for the coming season. EFDR insiders said last night that the clubs were prepared to "go it alone" if an agreement was not reached.

The clubs are determined to defy Baister and his RFU colleagues by playing Cardiff and Swansea, the two leading Welsh teams currently in dispute with their own union, in a high profile series of friendly matches next season. "If the RFU chooses to kick us out because of it, that's their problem," said one EFDR source yesterday. "We have contractual agreements with both Cardiff and Swansea and we do not intend to renege on them. This is it. Zero hour"

A British league involving the top 14 English clubs, all eight Welsh Premiership sides and the two Scottish super-district teams would solve the crisis at a stroke, but Baister and his counterparts across the Severn Bridge are adamant that no such competition can be organised in time for a domestic campaign scheduled to begin in less than three weeks' time. Baister, who has already rejected one set of fixtures designed to incorporate Cardiff and Swansea, showed no sign of backing down yesterday. "We've made it perfectly clear that a new cross-border competition is not practical," he said.

Both Cardiff and Swansea met Welsh Rugby Union officials on Monday night in an unsuccessful attempt to put the British league project back on the agenda and their failure left the English clubs convinced that the International Rugby Board, the world governing body chaired by Vernon Pugh, were blocking the initiative from afar. "In our opinion, the IRB is a tainted organisation," said one EFDR board member. "We'd be better off out of it."

Cardiff remain adamant that they will not sign a 10-year loyalty agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union and confidently expect to play Bedford, last season's Allied Dunbar Premiership Two champions, a fortnight on Saturday. Swansea are in a more delicate position; they have no wealthy backer to bankroll their stand against the union and their directors were meeting at St Helen's yesterday to weigh up the options.

An accord with the WRU would ensure the Welsh champions' presence in next season's European Cup and, perhaps crucially, an immediate windfall of something approaching pounds 800,000. However, the organisers of that competition have yet to produce a fixture list and are still unable to confirm details of their sponsorship and broadcasting arrangements. Financial support for the tournament will almost certainly be slashed because of the boycott by English clubs.