Rugby Union: European deal puts English clubs on the spot

IT HAS been the most acrimonious of years in the making, it has been brutal and it has taken some to the point of ruin, but come hell, high water or legal action, England will be represented in the European Cup next season. More importantly, they will come in under the control not of the clubs but of European Rugby Cup, the organising body.

Whether it is the top club sides from the Allied Dunbar Premiership who are playing or teams cobbled together from the lower leagues or even from the English regions will depend upon the response of the First Division clubs to this momentous decision taken by the Rugby Football Union council on Friday.

At that meeting, which was at times heated, a consensus was reached that the RFU had to accept their responsibilities as the governing body of the game in England and that they should fall into line with the other competing nations by accepting the conditions imposed by ERC.

Dismay was expressed at the behaviour of members of the RFU's management board who had been encouraging the clubs in their attempts to persuade the French to sign up to an agreement which would have in effect handed over control of the competition to the English and French clubs.

The fact that these negotiations were being conducted behind the backs of the other countries further fuelled the mistrust which already existed between the Celts and the RFU, and soured relationships even further. An increasing number of council members, including influential and highly respected men such as Bill Beaumont, deplored the behaviour of those charged with the responsibility of protecting the RFU's interests. Brian Baister, the chairman of the management board, and Francis Baron, the chief executive, were prominent figures in the negotiations with the French and were both criticised.

The reaction of the English clubs to the council's decision will be fascinating. Last month they believed that they had reached an agreement with their French counterparts which gave them a 60 per cent controlling interest in the competition. This would have reduced ERC to little more than a mailing house and would have enabled the clubs to dictate the terms under which the competition was organised, empowering them to negotiate broadcasting rights, sponsorship deals and scheduling of matches,and even to switch the centre of operations from Dublin to Monaco.

Since then, however, there have been signs that Bernard Lapasset, the president of the French Federation, has reverted to the position he took last November and that he and other French members of the working party have begun to distance themselves from the English clubs.

All this despite the frenzied efforts of the Gloucester owner, Tom Walkinshaw, who has been heading the negotiations on behalf of the English First Division clubs and who has been taking an increasingly bullish stance.

With Friday's announcement, however, the clubs have been impaled on the horns of a dilemma. If they try to bluff it out and refuse to enter the competition they will be replaced by other teams. There is also the very real risk that a number of First Division clubs will break ranks and will put themselves forward for Europe.

It is understood that Walkinshaw's tactics have not won unanimous approval within English First Division Rugby and the splits are beginning to show. This time the stakes are much too high and should the clubs repeat their profligacy of last year and continue their boycott, a few friendly bank managers could turn distinctly nasty.

The clubs will no doubt attempt to play their last remaining card by claiming that the RFU are in breach of the Mayfair Agreement, which prevents them from nominating sides outside the First Division for the European Cup, but as the clubs themselves have contemptuously driven a coach and horses through that discredited accord they have long since surrendered the moral high ground on legal principles.

On the other hand, the clubs could accept the RFU's decision and meekly re-enter the competition under the terms and conditions laid down by ERC. But that would be total capitulation and all the misery and financial hardship of the past year would have been for nothing.

Walkinshaw is, by all accounts, determined still to play hard ball and has told Vernon Pugh in no uncertain terms what he could do with the ERC's condition for entry.

Others, rather more doveish than he is, may well see things differently, but whatever the outcome of this grubby episode in the RFU's history, the welcome feat of getting England back into Europe next season and, one hopes, for sometime thereafter will have been achieved despite - and not because of - England's leading clubs and the RFU's management board.