Rugby Union: Embattled board mounts charm offensive

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The Independent Online
FIRST, THE bad news. Vernon Pugh and his brethren on the International Board have summoned the Rugby Football Union to appear before a disciplinary committee in the latest escalation of a sporting conflict that threatens to make the 100 Years' War look like a brief disagreement.

The IB is not remotely amused by Twickenham's refusal to join it in a pincer attack on England's militant professional clubs, who are attempting to secure wide-ranging commercial rights and freedoms under European law.

And the good news? The IB, which prefers to describe itself as the "custodian" of the world game rather than its governing body, has tacitly dismissed as ridiculous any notion of giving England the bum's rush from next year's World Cup, which is probably just as well given that Twickenham is scheduled to host both semi-finals as well as one of the five pools.

"We are in the business of solving problems, not drumming people out of the game," said Stephen Baines, the board's new chief executive. "We have sanctions available to us and expulsion is one, but I haven't heard it mentioned. I don't think it's even been contemplated."

Which is not how the anti-club activists have been telling it this past year or so. Certainly, the IB is deeply suspicious of the clubs' long- term attitude towards releasing players for international duty and its executive members are apoplectic over the RFU's reluctance to divulge details of its own response to the European Commission action. However, they are patently not about to make scapegoats of Lawrence Dellaglio and a bunch of innocent England Test players.

"If we cannot protect the primacy of international rugby and, by extension, player release, it is a very serious matter for the game," said Pugh, the board chairman. "To my mind, the RFU's lack of co-operation over this issue is disappointing and it's fair to say that the southern hemisphere is growing impatient at the failure of this part of the world to come to terms with the professional era. I'm confident, though, that good sense will prevail in terms of a recognition of the need for proper governance, as well as an acceptance that the clubs deserve their place in the sun."

Concerns over player release have inspired a new IB policy aimed at preventing any recurrence of last summer's shenanigans, when England, in particular, sent a laughably mismatched tour party to face the music in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In future, a host nation will be permitted to scrap a tour if the incoming squad is significantly below Test strength. What criteria will be used? "It is difficult to be precise but an under- strength party is rather like an elephant," said Pugh. "It's hard to describe, but you know one when you see it."

Having spent the past 12 months as the English clubs' number-one bogeyman, Pugh took his opportunity yesterday to launch a charm offensive and managed to sound all the right notes on a raft of pressing issues, from anti-doping measures to international fixture schedules. In a nutshell, last week's interim board meeting in Dublin was one of the most positive in the organisation's brief but tumultuous history.

Drug-testing, both after matches and out of competition, will be significantly expanded. "We can't be blind to the fact that in the professional age, temptations exist that probably weren't there in the amateur days," said Pugh. "Rugby does not appear to have a major problem here but one positive test is 100 per cent too many and we intend to keep well on top of things. During the recent World Cup qualifying tournament in Asia, we carried out three tests per match. At next year's finals, we will be as rigorous on this as any sport in the world."

There has also been agreement on a brighter international future for the so-called "second tier" nations - among them Argentina, Canada and the Pacific Islands. All can expect regular home and away fixtures against the major European countries as well as annual visits from the big southern hemisphere powers, which throws up the delightful prospect of New Zealand finally playing on the unforgiving soil of Western Samoa, from where they appear to get most of their All Blacks.

Argentina will host the 2001 World Cup Sevens. The third running of the tournament, following Edinburgh in 1993 and Hong Kong last year, will be based in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. Argentina and Spain were short-listed from an original list of 11 bids. By way of consolation, Spain will be given an opportunity to stage one of the qualifying tournaments.

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