Rugby Union: England's precarious peace deal

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The Independent Online
WHO WOULD have thought it? In the biggest shock to hit rugby since New Zealand beat Japan in the 1995 World Cup - the All Blacks sneaked a tight game 145-17 - England were last night re-admitted to the Five Nations championship after a whole 24 hours in the wilderness. The sport's governing classes could sleep soundly in their beds once more, safe in the knowledge that their astonishing ability to make Fred Karno's Army look like the SAS remained undiminished.

The entirely predictable conclusion to this latest pseudo-political charade came when Allan Hosie, the Scottish chairman of the Five Nations committee, emerged from a fireside meeting in a Glasgow pub to trumpet an agreement thrashed out with Brian Baister, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union, and Bill Beaumont, the former England Grand Slam captain, who was drafted in to play the honest broker role. But while Hosie and Beaumont spoke of their "delight" at reaching a solution, others were counting the cost of another desperately damaging episode in the short but chaotic history of professional union.

Revered rugby figures queued up to pour scorn on a body of administrators now thoroughly discredited: Rob Andrew, the former England outside-half, described the events of the last few days as "staggering" while Gavin Hastings, who captained both Scotland and the Lions, said he was "sickened" by this latest outbreak of brinksmanship. Serge Blanco, the great French full-back who is fast emerging as one of the most influential figures in European rugby, spoke of his "disbelief" at the breakdown between England and their Celtic neighbours.

Despite yesterday's hastily concocted deal, the critics will hardly have been reassured by the conflicting statements issued by the two sides. While Hosie was insisting that the RFU had agreed "unequivocally" to abide by the terms of the 1996 Five Nations Accord on the division of television monies, the document at the heart of the dispute, the powerbrokers of Twickenham were equally adamant that their worries over the small print would be fully addressed. "We are pleased that this agreement has been reached and that we can now begin discussions on our concerns regarding the accord," said Francis Baron, the RFU's chief executive.

As the dust settled on a day of frenzied diplomatic activity it became clear that the sponsors of the championship, Lloyds TSB, had succeeded in banging together a few heads. Furious senior company representatives met Roger Pickering, the Five Nations chief executive, in London and made it abundantly clear that their existing deal was very much at risk. Not surprisingly, the potential loss of pounds 12 million concentrated rugby minds wonderfully.

Even though the RFU has agreed that Arthur Harverd, an independent valuer appointed by the Law Society, can now begin his long-delayed investigation into the distribution of the millions of pounds generated by the most popular annual championship in world sport, the tournament is not yet out of the woods. Twickenham's commercial hard-liners, led by Baron, are deeply suspicious of the terms of an accord signed during a previous management regime and despite their relative wealth - they receive pounds 13 million a year from BSkyB broadcasting rights alone - they are certain to press for a more favourable deal at the forthcoming talks.

In particular, they want to know how much money Italy will bring to the table when the first Six Nations championship is launched next year and, more importantly still, they will demand clarification of the current French position in relation to television cash. Somewhere along the line, France managed to negotiate a cosy little get-out clause allowing them to keep every last franc of their own TV income until 2002. Under the accord, the other Five Nations countries must pool their income.

Even if the independent valuation is accepted by all sides and the money squabbles come to an end, the poison released by this affair is likely to stay in the bloodstream of the northern hemisphere game for a good while yet. Leading RFU figures believe a kangaroo court was in operation in Dublin last Friday, when the expulsion decision was taken without a formal Five Nations committee vote, and still consider themselves the meat in a Celtic sandwich. Only when the Italians come on board next year will they feel less exposed to the whims of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, whose block voting antics were one of the prime causes of the English clubs' boycott of this season's European Cup.

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