Rugby Union: Cracks show in clubs' wall of insanity

Chris Rea argues that power is heading to the RFU as dispute builds to climax
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The Independent Online
ANOTHER day, another crisis, another ultimatum. Not for the first time in this ugly, inglorious battle between club and country has a pistol been put to the head of the Rugby Football Union. This time, however, the clubs should make sure that it is fully loaded and pointing in the right direction because they have shot themselves in both feet so many times in the past that there is nothing now to support them should they topple over. And topple they will.

For the umpteenth time I can only repeat my words of the past 18 months. Forget the hypocritical self-righteousness of those who claim that by withdrawing the players from the summer tours, the clubs are merely seeking to protect their assets from the physical ravages of playing too much rugby. That is just another smoke screen concealing the truth that this is a fight for control.

The clubs are on dangerously insecure ground. If, as is being reported, Northampton and Saracens have a clause in their players' contracts requiring the club's approval before they can be released for international matches, that contravenes the agreement not only with English Rugby Partnership but also with the International Board, which insists that national duty takes precedence over a club responsibility.

Furthermore, as the clubs themselves are happy enough to claim when levelling the same charge against the RFU, Northampton and Saracens would quite probably be breaking the law of the land on restraint of trade. The summer tours have long since been agreed and all the England squad members are already contracted to tour.

No one denies that it will be a preposterously demanding trip for England. But those were decisions made by the previous regime at Twickenham which the clubs were happy enough to support when it suited them but which is being more thoroughly discredited with every day that passes. Just when the game needed the wisest of heads, the RFU was saddled with the worst administration in its history.

Now, however, the RFU have the clubs on the run. During the past week they have steadily been taking the high ground, forcing the clubs out into the open by offering them a re- negotiated European Cup package which gives them almost everything they were seeking. The clubs' response to this was to reject it out of hand, proving once again that the battle is much more about the control of the game than it is about the welfare of employees.

Some of the comments emanating from the clubs during the week have beggared belief, beginning with the Northampton backer Keith Barwell's verbal assault on Fran Cotton. Describing Cotton's blueprint for the future as a cross between Karl Marx and Groucho Marx was a bit rich given that the finances of so many Premiership clubs are more Groucho than Karl, and were they not so ruinously serious, would be the world's biggest joke.

We have also heard a lot this week from Doug Ash, who is not to my knowledge straight from the Who's Who of rugby and, if his recent comments in the Financial Times are anything to go by, doesn't have an entry in the businessman's Who's Who either. No matter, Ash is the newly appointed chief executive of England First Division Rugby.

He has been making much of the menacing threats and ultimatums being issued by Clive Woodward, conveniently forgetting that they came in response to the menacing threats and ultimatums issued by the clubs. Then he was famously quoted as saying: "We'd like to talk - there's no real dialogue taking place." Forgive me, but was this not the same body which refused to attend Fran Cotton's presentation meeting at Twickenham a fortnight ago?

The clubs have gambled everything so far on the premise that control of the players' contracts means control of the game. But the news that the RFU have been in contact with Wigan's Gary Connolly may just cause a few of the fainter hearts to flutter. This is the clearest sign yet that the RFU have finally rid themselves of the blazered incompetents who were running the game and are prepared to meet the professional era full on.

By signing Connolly and other top names from the ranks of rugby league, the RFU, if necessary, could cobble together a pretty decent national side in the short term and, under-pinned by the existing nationwide structure, could in the longer term service a dozen or so franchised clubs in the four regions of England. It might sound the death knell for rugby league but it would save the union game from the utter madness that is now threatening its existence.

Two intriguing questions remain to be answered regarding what must be seen as the clubs' last stand. Why now and why Barwell? The answer to the first is that the clubs have come to the end of the line. They are in a chaotic mess financially, which is very largely a result of their own recklessness, and they are fast trying the patience and losing the backing of the ordinary rugby supporter in the quest for control. But why Barwell, who was regarded as a dove within the club hierarchy? Call me a tired old cynic but it is not inconceivable that his outing as a hawk had something to do with the visit of Newcastle and Sir John Hall to Franklins Gardens last week. Whatever it was that provoked Barwell, he is playing a highly dangerous game.

Although the clubs have promised him their full support they have not yet taken the ultimate step in withdrawing their players from the national squad. Barwell should be aware of the creed by which England's leading clubs have lived so far - one for all and each for number one.

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