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Rugby Union: English keep the others guessing

THE IRISH, it seems, are in - along with the Scots and most of the Welsh. The only people we now have to worry about are the English, who wanted to be in this time last month but are now determined to stay out at least until the end of October. As for Cardiff and Swansea, they have no intention of coming in from the outside unless their English allies opt for life on the inside. Does that make sense? Good. Maybe things are getting clearer on the British league front.

Delegates from the four home unions gathered in Manchester on Tuesday for the first meeting of a working party set up to examine the feasibility of a new cross-border tournament pulling together the best from every corner of the British Isles. They unanimously agreed that such a competition was the way forward and that the Irish provinces, who were rather neglected when the idea was first floated in August, should be fully involved. Had the English clubs not boycotted the discussion, northern hemisphere rugby might be celebrating.

Glanmor Griffiths, the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, was asked to double up by chairing the working party as well and he promptly recorded his disappointment at the absence of the English clubs from the negotiating table. Considering Griffiths had recently ruled out any possibility of playing contact with those self-same Englishmen while they continued to test governing body regulations through the European Commission, his remarks merely reinforced rugby's leading role in professional sport's theatre of the absurd.

Still, Griffiths cut no more absurd a figure than those hard-liners among the English clubs who between them had managed to concoct a public relations disaster with their intemperate anti-British league comments at the weekend. The more dovish elements on the board of English First Division Rugby, the pressure group representing the 14 Allied Dunbar Premiership One clubs, were attempting to repair the damage yesterday by distancing themselves from remarks by Mike Smith, the Saracens chief executive, and Sir John Hall, the Newcastle owner.

There will, of course, be no meaningful or commercially sustainable British and Irish league without the English, just as their absence removes all meaning from the European Cup that kicked off, emasculated and unsponsored, in Belfast last Friday. A degree of new financial support has belatedly been secured, however, and the details will be revealed in Dublin before tomorrow evening's Pool A fixture between Leinster and Stade Francais.

It seemed clear yesterday that Heineken, who pumped some pounds 10m into the first three years of the competition, had finally been jettisoned as major backers. "We haven't had any word from the tournament organisers but if they're making an announcement of new money before the weekend, I think it's safe to assume we're not involved," said a Heineken spokesman.

Other potential sponsors include Mark McCormack's International Management Group and a Swiss-based sports marketing company, ISL. Whatever the outcome, the Heineken Cup appears to be an ex-tournament; a sad, squalid end to something very special.