Rugby union: Clubs set to end European boycott

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ENGLISH RUGBY'S exasperated rank and file will believe it when they see it - after three long years of boardroom backbiting, it would be easier to sell the Second Coming to a confirmed atheist - but the most powerful figure at Twickenham is confident that at least one of the game's major political disputes is about to be solved. Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, said yesterday that the Allied Dunbar Premiership clubs were likely to abandon their boycott of the European Cup and play in next season's competition.

"A good deal of progress has been made on this front," reported Baron during the course of a wide-ranging interim briefing on the thousand and one off-field issues still plaguing the sport as it attempts to cope with the growing pains of professionalism. "There will be a meeting next week, perhaps on Monday or Tuesday, between all interested parties and I'm very hopeful that a deal, or at least the basis of a deal, can be struck. The RFU wants to see English clubs competing in Europe next season and we have pursued that aim as a matter of the utmost urgency."

No one will celebrate a rapprochement between the Premiership clubs and their British, Irish and Continental cousins more than the players, for whom the 12-month stand-off has achieved precisely nothing. While Baron accepted that delicate negotiations still lay ahead - a proposal by the English and French clubs to restrict the three Celtic nations to only seven places in a 20-team competition has not provoked much dancing in the streets of Cardiff, Edinburgh or Dublin - the chances of creating a pounds 30m tournament next season depend on agreement. The current organising body will meet in Lyon before Saturday's 42,000 sell-out European Shield final between Bourgoin and Montferrand to prepare the ground for a truce.

Sadly, that was about the extent of Baron's good news. The chief executive refused to be drawn on the RFU's response to the substantial fines imposed by the International Rugby Board at recent disciplinary hearings, but it was clear that the union remained split down the middle on the issue. Having spent more than pounds 520,000 on legal expenses in 1997-98 and a whole lot more during the financial year that ends this summer, the Twickenham hierarchy has yet to decide whether to fight the world governing body in the courts or simply pay up.

"We could have bought our own law firm with the money we've splashed out on lawyers and consultants; the cost of all the factional in-fighting is there on the bottom line in horrible red ink," admitted Baron, who imposed heavy job losses on the Twickenham workforce last month. "My stated objective is to return the union to the black and to make it the financial powerhouse of the game, but we've lost pounds 10.3m over the last two years and while revenue went up by 228 per cent during that time, our costs rose by 309 per cent. If a plc had presented those figures to the City, a lot of heads would have rolled."

He also accepted that Bristol's move to obtain a top-flight Premiership place through the back door by buying London Scottish - and, by extension, Cardiff's rumoured interest in purchasing West Hartlepool - was a regulatory nightmare waiting to happen. "Rugby's rules were not drawn up to cater for the realities of the commercial world," he said. "The fact is that any sporting organisation's regulations are subject to national and European law. We need to tighten up our rules and we are working on it, but we don't want to frame anything that will send a stream of people rushing off to Brussels for legal redress. These are very, very difficult times."

On the playing front, as opposed to the political one, the career of Frank Bunce, one of the great centres of the modern era, is in the balance. Bunce left New Zealand for Castres last summer but has spent all season on the treatment table. The French club indicated yesterday that it will release the All Black veteran at the end of the current campaign.