Rugby Union: Cotton's eruption clouds final

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The Independent Online
Two years ago, Will Carling described the membership of the Rugby Football Union as "57 old farts" and, in the process, succeeded in turning the Pilkington Cup final into a side issue. Tomorrow's Twickenham showpiece is in danger of suffering a similar fate, thanks to the latest eruption of malodorous hot air from the bowels of the RFU's divided hierarchy.

The newly-constituted RFU Reform Group, headed up by Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, has circulated every English club with allegations of RFU mismanagement, undemocratic manipulation and every other nefarious activity short of first-degree murder. The accusations, which carry the full support of Cliff Brittle, the union's disenchanted executive chairman, centre on the pounds 87.5m broadcasting deal with BSkyB, the signing of which is imminent.

Cotton and his colleagues have repeatedly claimed that Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, misled member clubs over the terms contained in the interim Heads of Agreement - in particular, on the issues of pay-per-view and scheduling - and have called for his resignation. In turn, the RFU's disciplinary committee is investigating a leak of confidential documents that infuriated BSkyB executives and put the entire deal at risk.

Yesterday, RFU sources predicted Cotton and his colleagues would soon be wiping liberal amounts of egg from their faces. "We have a veto on pay-per-view and it is enshrined in black and white in the final BSkyB contract," said one. "There is no possibility of pay-per-view being introduced without our written consent. The lawyers from both sides are close to finalising the agreement and the sooner we can go public with it, the better."

While the Reform Group continued to insist that the broadcasters' would hold the whip hand over the scheduling of England international matches - in reality, BSkyB have dictated the timing of league matches since they started their live coverage of domestic club rugby three seasons ago - the RFU pointed to its own impeccable democratic credentials: four general meetings, a commission on the future of the game, an independent study and two reports into administrative structures, all instigated within the first 18 months of professionalism.

It now seems certain that more blood will be spilled at the annual meeting in July, at which the RFU intends to support a direct challenge to Brittle's executive chairmanship. Twickenham is also pulling its wagons into a circle around Hallett, who remains the No 1 target for Cotton and his rebels.

John Fowler, the injured Sale lock, has withdrawn from England's two- Test trip to Argentina after a straw-clutching visit to a faith healer failed to repair damaged knee ligaments. Northampton's Martin Bayfield dropped out on Wednesday because of groin trouble.

Graham Dawe, the Cornish farmer whose no-holds-barred hooking duel with Brian Moore dominated English front-row play for the best part of a decade, has retired from top-class rugby with Bath at the age of 37. Capped five times by his country, Dawe, who has struggled with thumb and elbow injuries throughout his testimonial season, said: "The old body is telling me something. It's time to say goodbye."

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