Rugby Union: Clubs threaten RFU's authority

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The Independent Online
BRIAN BAISTER spent yesterday inching his way slowly along rugby's diplomatic tightrope, only to see it snap beneath his feet. The Rugby Football Union chairman's last ditch attempt to solve the political impasse threatening to tear the domestic game asunder came to nothing, leaving England's senior clubs manning the barricades for a potentially calamitous trial of strength with their own governing body.

Baister met with a high powered delegation of Premiership club owners and chief executives at Twickenham to hear their final pleas for the immediate formation of a British league. In effect, those pleas fell on deaf ears; Baister consulted with his colleagues on the RFU management board and his opposite numbers in Wales before reasserting his view that any new cross-border competition for the coming season was a non-starter.

In response, the clubs said they would go ahead with plans to play Cardiff and Swansea, the two dissident Welsh clubs at the centre of the latest ructions, in defiance of an RFU instruction not to do so. "If the union chooses to discipline us, so be it," said Donald Kerr, the chairman of English First Division Rugby and a Harlequins board member. "We'll almost certainly publish a fixture list containing the names of both Welsh clubs in the next 24 hours."

That could lead to all manner of pandemonium, with the RFU coming under renewed pressure from a hostile international rugby community to expel the Premiership malcontents. The new English season starts on 5 September and the Welsh campaign as early as Saturday week. At the moment, neither Cardiff nor Swansea intend to play against their countrymen.

Baister had appeared to soften his position by agreeing to yesterday's round of emergency talks, but he failed to convince the more conservative members of his board that new life could, or should, be breathed into the British league initiative. "We thought we'd made some sort of breakthrough, but it was not to be," said Kerr. "Brian's life has been made very difficult for him."

Club sources described last night's events as the "cut-off point", insisting that no further delay would be countenanced. But even had the RFU turned full circle and agreed to back a British league, they would still have needed to seek consent from the IRB. "Wherever you look in this game, people have painted themselves into a corner," said one RFU member yesterday. "I cannot for the life of me see a way out of this one."

Unauthorised games between English and Welsh clubs would inevitably involve rebel referees. Ed Morrison, the world's leading international official, ruled out any possibility of his participating in an unsanctioned match, but Hugh Banfield, the secretary of the Welsh Society of Referees, said yesterday: "There may be some refs here who have had enough of the WRU. The clubs will need people of high calibre for such a level of rugby but I suppose it comes down to who pays the most money."

Meanwhile, the Australian Rugby Union underlined their public dissatisfaction with the performance of an under-strength England team in Brisbane in June by refusing Clive Woodward's side a second Test Down Under next summer. England will definitely play the Wallabies in Sydney on 26 June, but John O'Neill, the chief executive of the ARU, has decreed that the only extra match on offer is against the Australian Barbarians or the country's leading Super 12 province.

Only the Springboks could boast a welcome outbreak of harmony yesterday. Silas Mkanunu, a lawyer from Port Elizabeth, will become the first black president of the South African Rugby Football Union next month, filling the substantial gap left by Louis Luyt's forced resignation earlier this year. Mkanunu's 30-year commitment to the game in Eastern Province, the most enlightened multi-racial union in the country, ensured that his nomination would go forward unchallenged.