Rugby Union: Clubs' radical answer to World Cup problem

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TOM WALKINSHAW would probably have found it easier to complete a death-defying circuit of the old Nurburgring with no brakes on his racing car and both hands tied behind his back, but the most influential big- money investor in English rugby has finally succeeded in brokering a common sense solution to at least one of the problems casting a shadow over the domestic game.

The Allied Dunbar Premiership elite will indeed start playing next season's competitive league fixtures in September, thanks to an imaginative formula designed to minimise the disruptive impact of the fourth World Cup, which begins the following month.

The chairman of English First Division Rugby, the leading clubs' umbrella organisation, yesterday unveiled plans to "weight" the Premiership points system to prevent those clubs heavily populated by Test players being unfairly penalised by international calls. Early season matches will carry two points for a win, but those played after the end of the World Cup will carry three. In that way, Walkinshaw explained, the worst-hit sides would have a sporting opportunity to make up any ground lost during the opening third of the campaign.

There had been moves, most notably from Saracens, to delay the Premiership kick-off until 13 November, a week after the World Cup final. It was not, however, an idea that cut much ice with Walkinshaw, who was bought into Gloucester two years ago after decades of sporting and commercial success at all levels of motor racing and understands the fundamental importance of keeping a product before its public. "If the World Cup was played during our close season, so much the better for us," he said. "That is not the situation and we have to live with the reality. We can't shut down our businesses for weeks at a time and have a whole lot of professional players hanging around doing nothing. The same goes for the spectators, who want and deserve something to watch."

Walkinshaw also adopted a feel-good approach to the chances of an English return to European competition next year, although he stressed the extreme sensitivity of the current negotiations. Aware that Anglo-French proposals, thought to be based around a 20-team competition with either five or six participants from each country, were scheduled to go before the European Rugby Cup board in Lyons tomorrow, the chairman flatly refused to enter into detail, explaining that he had no intention of "upsetting the apple cart at such a late juncture". But he added: "Personally speaking, I'd be astonished if reasonable men failed to solve the issue from this position. The English boycott has been painful for all concerned, but long-term rewards should come from that short-term pain. We will only fail to reach agreement now if people are not genuine in wanting a resolution."

Intriguingly, Walkinshaw was nowhere near so upbeat on the chances of a British or Anglo-Welsh league being established in the foreseeable future. "So many people spent such a great deal of time debating that issue last time round that I don't think there is much point anyone resurrecting it unless they have nothing better to do on a wet afternoon," he said dismissively. "The more we looked into the possibility of a British league, the more problematic it became. I think there could have been an Anglo- Welsh agreement based on five Welsh clubs in the two divisions of the Premiership, but when it came to the crunch the Welsh wanted that number doubled. I'm not here to put 10 English clubs out of business, that's for sure."

All of which left him contemplating the extraordinarily complex situation surrounding Cardiff and Swansea, the two Welsh refuseniks who opted out of domestic competition after telling their union exactly what they could do with their 10-year loyalty agreement. If Walkinshaw is to be believed, the hottest political potato in the British game will be planted six feet under in double-quick time - "I don't think there will be a Cardiff and Swansea issue next season," he said cryptically - but if one of those clubs purchases a financially challenged English outfit over the next few weeks, the International Rugby Board may come to a different conclusion.

Whatever happens, the English will not leave the two rebels swinging in the wind. "If it comes down to it, we'll stick to our agreement and play friendly matches against them next season," Walkinshaw said.