Rugby Union: England out but talks offer 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 were later offered the prospect of a reprieve.

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 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 that, contrary to RFU claims, the position had been made clear to their 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, 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."

The RFU said in a response issued last night: "We will continue our efforts to enter into dialogue with the Five Nations committee. The RFU remains committed to the principle of the Five Nations' Championship."

It is understood that dialogue continued between the parties last night. Time is running out, with the Five Nations starting on 6 February and England's first game against Scotland scheduled for 20 February. Italy, due to make it the Six Nations in 2000, would have difficulty stepping into England's shoes this season as their stadium is not ready.

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

The ramifications of England's expulsion could be crippling for Twickenham. Ticket money, revenue from corporate hospitality, sponsorship 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 7m for televising England's Five Nations matches against France and Scotland at Twickenham.

There were claims yesterday that letters requesting that England not be expelled would be sent to the Five Nations committee from Sky, ITV and Lloyds-TSB. However, the latter has denied any such intention.

The expectation that England will take part in the championship was expressed by the former England international Mike Burton, whose company organises trips to Five Nations matches. "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 said.

Noel Murphy, the president of the Irish RFU, urged the RFU to climb down. He said: "I am extremely disappointed that the RFU seemingly cannot now agree with decisions which were agreed back in 1996."

Serge Blanco, a leading French administrator, said: "I think there is still a 70 per cent chance that the English will play in the Five Nations."

England's captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, said: "I am not in complete despair. We will continue to prepare for the Five Nations as per normal. This is symptomatic of rugby union at the moment. It's been happening at club level for some time, so for it to move on to international level is sad but indicative of the climate we live in."