Rugby Union: Dangers behind the clubs' numbers game

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THE EVENTS of the past week have revealed the truly pitiful state of rugby in this country. Twenty-four hours after the final whistle had blown on the World Cup and what filled the sports pages? The surge in interest as a result of this globally followed tournament? The announcement of exciting new initiatives for player development or grass-roots schemes to encourage the young and to build for the future?

No. It was the unseemly scramble by two or three clubs to sign Jonah Lomu, who, together with his agent, has benefited from a compliant media in their efforts to boost his value and ensure that the New Zealand Rugby Union had to pay top dollar for their star player.

That Lomu has now returned to New Zealand and has reached a two-year agreement with his union for a fee which may not be as fat as Mr Kingsley- Jones and his client had hoped makes this tawdry episode all the more pathetic. But the Lomu affair was merely the sub-plot. At the same time as the clubs were feeding the Dutch auction for the All Black, a group of club owners were quietly planning to reduce further the numbers in the Allied Dunbar Premiership and change the domestic game's structure.

Will these people never learn? Last season their challenge to the game's authority through the European courts, fought at massive expense to all parties, came to nought. Their attempts to highjack the European Cup and to control the tournament were thwarted, as were their efforts to establish a British league. Yet here they are a few months later trying again, the only difference being that this time they are fewer in number and the support for their cause is much less solid.

Saracens' bid for Wasps was a serious miscalculation because it alerted the other clubs as to what was going on and unveiled the hidden agenda to reduce the Premiership to eight or even six clubs and to form a British league, leading in the fullness of time to a European competition. Even if, in commercial terms, the bid to merge two big loss-making operations into one smaller loss-maker is sound, the golden share held by the amateur section of the Wasps club, giving them the right of veto over any sale, ensured that the scheme was doomed from the start.

Understandably, a number of clubs including Newcastle, Wasps, Bristol and Bedford reacted furiously and were on the point of calling an emergency meeting of English First Division Rugby before being headed off at the pass by Tom Walkinshaw, the owner of Gloucester, who has convened a meeting of the clubs for tomorrow. There will, no doubt, be some straight and unpleasant talking and it is not before time.

The English clubs are not empowered to engage in any negotiations independently of the union. Their oxygen for this latest attempted coup has come from a bunch of like-minded owners in Wales with the support of two or three leading figures within the Rugby Football Union and Welsh Rugby Union. But neither body would consider sanctioning this latest proposal for a British league, and the Scots, who were by all accounts to be included in the plans, have not even been approached. In common with England and Wales, the Scottish Rugby Union would flatly reject the proposals.

So what is driving this latest assault on the government of the game? As ever it is money and control. Club rugby remains in the same old financial pickle despite the so-called wage cap and the promise of more money from European competition. The Sky deal, bad as it was and which is expected to cost the RFU substantial sums of money when the result of the valuation is announced in the next week or so, has at least had the merit of uniting the home unions.

There is now a general acceptance that they must never again act in isolation when it comes to selling off the game's most valuable properties. As a result, the next television negotiations in 2002, following the expiry of the Sky contract, will be conducted collectively. Given the need for the game to reach the widest possible audience in order to raise its profile and awareness, and the BBC's determination to become more competitive in the sports rights market, Sky cannot be confident of getting the exclusivity they currently enjoy in the English game.

Hence their eagerness to gain a foothold in Europe which, so far as club rugby is concerned, is the one asset of significant value. There are rumours, vehemently denied but persistent enough to warrant exploration, of financial inducements made by the television company to the top clubs should they agree to a European tournament covered and underwritten by Sky.

It may, of course, be coincidence, but Walkinshaw, the man who has been pressing for the new league, is one of England's representatives on the board of European Rugby Cup. If nothing else there is a conflict of interests in this arrangement which is unacceptable.

If there is any good to have come from the chaos and near anarchy of the past couple of years, it is the realisation by rugby's rulers, in the nick of time, that these people are posing the gravest of threats to the game's future.