Rugby Union: Counties fear breakaway by the elite: Senior Clubs Association recommendation raises issue of future schism

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The Independent Online
RUGBY UNION is bracing itself for another civil war, 99 years after the first one which spawned the professional 13-a-side game. This time, though, there are fears that a money-spinning Super League could result from a proposal by the Senior Clubs Association to cut itself completely adrift from the County Championship.

The SCA, which representsthe top 40 clubs in the first four divisions of the Courage League but is still answerable to the Rugby Football Union, wants its members to back a recommendation that its players should be barred from participating in the already ailing County Championship and abandon it to the rest of the clubs. In a separate proposal it also wants to limit the size of squads to 40 players.

Frank Gibbon, the chairman of the SCA, said: 'The proposal certainly reflects the views of clubs in the First and Second Divisions and also many in the Third and Fourth.

'We are not in a position to dictate anything. These are recommendations, but I can assure you, club treasurers have something to say about this because the thought of losing two or three Saturdays is quite appalling. Most senior clubs have great difficulty in surviving and need to have meaningful games played on their own grounds with their own sponsors, their own crowd and their own bar take. These club fixtures will be a higher standard than county matches. The County Championship is not being abolished. Our view is simply that it opens it up to another layer of players.'

But the SCA's proposal has enraged the counties. 'This is a stab in the back,' Chris McLoughlin, the secretary of Durham, said, 'completely against the thrust of the game. It will split rugby union if it is allowed to go ahead. We administer the game as counties, but the senior clubs would have us believe we are second-class citizens.

'We take a civic approach, we want every club and everyone in the clubs to do well. These people, a tiny minority, are prepared to wreck the game by breaking away. I think they will eventually close the door on the top four leagues. It has that feel. They want to create an elite 40 and keep out the rest.'

Lee Hetherington, the Durham president, goes a step further. 'Many of our players desperately want to play county rugby,' he asserted. 'They can't all get into the Divisional side but they still want to play representative rugby. It's the next step up for them. The player must always have the choice.

'It is unacceptable that players should be told: 'If you play for our club, you do not play for your county.' They have no right to say that. And this is where the sinister bit comes in. The SCA talks of 'meaningful' fixtures, but I cannot see the northern clubs being able to arrange such fixtures and since they already play each other twice in the leagues anyway they can't be meaningful fixtures. So that means bringing in clubs from outside.'

McLoughlin said: 'I've a feeling in my bones that a lot of them will go down that track. They will find the top six anywhere and form some sort of European Union.'

Gibbon claims the SCA, like the RFU, was opposed to the recent Anglo-Welsh talks, but he does not rule out the possibility of a football- style Premiership. 'When we start talking about Super Leagues and that sort of thing, who knows? But that is not on the table yet, although I don't discount anything.'