Rugby Union: England push famous Five to brink

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THE SIGHT of Malcolm Pearce, the owner of Bristol rugby club, at Lord's last week was a little unsettling. Was he planning a takeover bid for the MCC? Were Bristol going to set up camp in St John's Wood and play on the sacred turf? Women in the Long Room is one thing, but where would the scrummaging machine go? It is a measure of how far rugby has sunk in the public esteem that any scheme, no matter how preposterous, is a possibility. On this occasion, however, Pearce, a man with a substantial portfolio of interests, was on other business.

Pearce is an oddity in that he is one of the very few club owners, indeed perhaps the only one, who is a rugby enthusiast first and a businessman second and who understands that the game cannot continue on its present path. He recognises that the price that would have to be paid to satisfy the owners' lust for power and money is much too high. What he has done in the past week is to expose the state of anarchy running through the English game and a lack of leadership which, in the days leading up to the Five Nations meeting in Dublin on Friday, has taken England to the very brink of expulsion from the forthcoming Five Nations' Championship.

When the Rugby Football Union went off on their own and signed the ill- starred agreement with BSkyB they were, despite their protestations of denial, booted out of the championship. The price for their readmittance was their signature to the accord which they are now claiming is unenforcable. Understandably, this has not gone down well with the other countries, in particular the cash-strapped Celts, and when the RFU council met on Thursday they were faced with an unpleasant choice. Either accept the agreement or face expulsion. So strong was the feeling in the Five Nations against the RFU that Italy had already been pencilled in to take over England's fixtures.

There were those on the RFU council including Brian Baister, the chairman of the board of management, who urged the council to opt for the adversarial approach in Dublin. In the event, and not before there had been a considerable amount of arm-twisting and head-shaking, wiser counsel prevailed. They have not, however, given the accord their unequivocal acceptance - instead they have set up a four-man team led by the chief executive, Francis Baron and Bill Beaumont, for yet more discussions - and this has been the stumbling block leading to tomorrow's deadline.

Nevertheless, the RFU have set up a working party to proceed with the valuation of England's international matches. Predictably, there has been the angriest response from outraged officialdom at Twickenham. This is a weekly occurrence and once again we are asked to believe that the RFU have been the innocent victims of a Celtic conspiracy. Baron complained that the other countries refused to see him despite many attempts to set up meetings. His memory is a little short. In the first place it was the RFU who were party to the accord, but subsequently refused to recognise it. In the second place a veritable rain forest of letters written by the Five Nations chairman Allan Hosie to the RFU failed to elicit a satisfactory response. Thirdly, it was Baron in the first instance who cancelled a meeting because of what he considered to be the more pressing demand of a meeting with the English clubs.

Even if England do sign on Monday deep-rooted problems remain. The RFU continues to be run by men who do not truly represent the feelings and desires of the English game, although there is a move within the council to get rid of John Jeavons-Fellows, who was defeated by Cliff Brittle for the chairmanship of the board of management three years ago and who is the RFU's representative on the International Rugby Board and a close ally of Baister. It cannot be right, for example, that Baister, given the choice between a British league and an Anglo-Welsh competition, will press for the latter because that is what his leading clubs want, never mind that it is not in the best interests of the wider community.

It is also a shade inflammatory given England's standing among the Celts for Baister and Baron to seek French support for the re-scheduling of the championship in order to accommodate England's Premiership clubs. Even to consider tinkering with a competition upon which the rest of the game in the northern hemisphere is financially dependent is sheer madness.

In the hope that England do see sense, this weekend may just mark the beginning of the end of this ruinous war. One by one the battles waged by the RFU and by their leading clubs are being lost. If the English clubs return to Europe next season with a share of the financial pot realistically reflecting their contribution to the success of the competition, it will almost certainly be under the direction and control of ERC rather than the clubs. Of course the European Cup has been hugely devalued by the absence of the Premiership's best, but the fact that 50,000 ticket requests for the final at Lansdowne Road later this month have been received from Ulster alone, suggests that there is, nevertheless, a show without Punch.