Rugby Union: England out but lifeline offers hope

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND WERE yesterday thrown out of the Five Nations' Championship after failing to meet the terms of the ultimatum handed to them at the weekend by the competition's chairman, Allan Hosie - but the Rugby Football Union was offered a lifeline.

A statement issued by the Five Nations committee said the RFU had refused to confirm by midday its acceptance of the agreement reached in 1996 governing the relationship between the five unions involved in the championship. "The deadline having passed," the statement said, "England ceased to be a member of the Five Nations committee and the Championship."

It added: "Contrary to the announcement made by the RFU, the position had been made very clear to their two senior elected representatives as of last Friday, both verbally and in writing."

However, it did hint at the prospect of resolving the stand-off. "Later this afternoon the RFU contacted the chairman of the Five Nations committee. As a result of these discussions, Mr Allan Hosie will consult with the other five[sic] unions to see if the position can now be resolved in the terms as initially requested by the Five Nations committee."

In other words England are out but need not be down. How long it will take to reinstate England is anyone's guess, but time is running out, with the opening of the championship just three weeks away.

Hosie had announced on Saturday that the RFU would be kicked off the Five Nations committee if it failed to ratify the agreement over the distribution of television revenues reached in 1996, when England were first threatened with expulsion. The RFU is adamant that it fully accepts that the accord is binding - provided all the other unions have fulfilled their individual obligations. That ranges from signing the agreement - and the RFU claims that the French have not - to pooling all their broadcast revenues. In Ireland's case, that means money from RTE and for Wales and Scotland, cash from the BBC. The RFU also maintains that the agreement needs to be altered to account for Italy's participation from next season.

The ramifications of England's expulsion could be commercially crippling for Twickenham. Ticket money, revenue from corporate hospitality, sponsorship monies from Lloyds-TSB and the revenue from the broadcasting rights sold to BSkyB - potentially all would be forfeited. That latter sum is in the region of pounds 7 million for televising the Five Nations matches against France and Scotland scheduled for Twickenham this season.

There were claims yesterday that letters requesting that England should be not be expelled would be sent to the Five Nations committee from Sky, ITV and Lloyds-TSB.

However, the latter has denied writing to Mr Hosie and his colleagues. A spokesman said: "We have not sent out a letter at all. We are aware of the situation but would not wish to speculate on the outcome."

Yet the company did say that England's sponsorship package was not in any immediate danger. It is believed that were England to remain excluded then Lloyds-TSB would exert some pressure on the Five Nations committee, but just what form that would take was not made clear.

The expectation that England will take part in this season's championship was expressed by the former England international Mike Burton, whose company organises trips to Five Nations matches. He said he had "absolutely no doubt" that England would be involved. "I bet my ear to a bag of sweets this will be sorted out in three days, and they will all go out and have dinner," he predicted.

Elsewhere, the stand-off has merely added to the growing exasperation with the game's hierarchy. Simon Halliday, the former England, Bath and Harlequins centre, said: "It is everything people were afraid of when professionalism came in."