Rugby Union: Clubs nip upstairs in attempt to bring Brittle to negotiating table

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND'S leading Premiership clubs will seek an early meeting with Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board, to thrash out a solution to the latest political crisis over player availability for this summer's four-Test tour of the southern hemisphere, writes Chris Hewett.

Whether they actually get their meeting is a different matter altogether; as things stand, the clubs have more chance of persuading Rupert Murdoch to publish a book entitled: "Why we hate China."

Both Brittle and the officers of the English Rugby Partnership, the joint RFU-club body charged with administering the domestic professional game, work from the same building at Twickenham, yet the last official contact between the two took place in October.

"He's upstairs, they're downstairs and they haven't talked in almost six months," said one baffled observer yesterday.

The clubs suspect that Brittle has no intention of discussing either of the major issues threatening the stability of the English game: the contracting of players and the structured fixture list. They have accused the RFU of breaking off negotiations on the preparation of a standard contract covering domestic and international rugby and believe Brittle and his colleagues are preparing to pressure individual England players into signing lock, stock and barrel with the governing body. Indeed, insiders say Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain, has already been targeted.

Donald Kerr, the ERP chairman, is planning an emergency meeting of his executive to discuss the decision of Northampton to ban their players from touring with England in June. Keith Barwell, the Saints owner and something of a loose cannon among the owner-investors, says he has taken a unilateral stand to save his leading lights from burn-out.

Barwell has gone far further than any fellow owner in dictating to his charges and one of them, Tim Rodber, accepted yesterday that he would be spending the summer on a beach rather than on the playing fields of Brisbane, Auckland and Cape Town. "Keith is our boss and we can't disregard the man who is paying our salary and giving us financial stability for the next five years," the Saints captain said.

"Ultimately, he is looking after his employees in the interests of Northampton. We've signed a contract with the club. Whatever happens, I'll be fresh for next season."

The Saracens squad met their employer, Nigel Wray, yesterday but were not told in so many words that they would not be permitted to tour. Wasps, who have Dallaglio under contract, have distanced themselves from an outright ban, while Bath insist that the decision will be left to individuals.

However, the clubs will attempt to present a united front in an effort to force the contract issue on to the RFU agenda. "We want it sorted, as do the players," a clubs' spokesman said. "Keith made his pronouncement to initiate discussion. The only way anyone gets anything done is to suggest something outrageous."