Rugby Union : First Division clubs' uprising

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The Independent Online
England's First Division clubs yesterday dramatically embarrassed the Rugby Football Union by declaring a vote of no confidence in, and withdrawal of goodwill from, the RFU commission on professionalism.

They then made what amounted to a threat of UDI over the RFU's supposed failure to consult and involve them in the debate that has followed the abandonment of amateurism at the International Rugby Board's meeting in Paris last month.

The clubs' sabre-rattling comes after the union's failure to accede to a specific request to include Bryan Wilkinson of Sale on the commission and means that Richard Mawditt, the Bath chairman, can no longer be one of its seven members.

"I would reject the allegation on the grounds that a chairman of a senior club was selected personally by the president to sit on the commission," Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, said last night. "It's a question of who trusts whom but I can assure the clubs that we have always intended to consult with all interested parties, particularly the League One clubs."

Mirroring disaffection among leading clubs in Wales and France, the First Division - or National League One - clubs now intend to set up their own company with the clear intention of negotiating their own, independent commercial deals.

Hallett ("64 days in office and a crisis every couple of days") is now engaged in an urgent damage-limitation exercise. "They are very worried that the RFU and the commission do not understand the special problems that relate to League One clubs," he said. "My argument is that we do. But the commission wasn't about representing a particular body of the kirk; it was about representing the game at large with the best brains we could find."

As well as Mawditt, a place was found for Bob Taylor of Northampton, who look likely to become a First Division club again next season, and the commission's secretariat includes Alwynne Evans, chief executive of the National Clubs' Association which represents the 40 members of the top four divisions.

This did not impress the League One clubs. "At a meeting at the East India Club on 31 August, Bill Bishop [RFU president] and Tony Hallett, accepting the special needs of the clubs, promised they would support a recommendation to the RFU executive establishing direct contact on all matters concerning First Division clubs," yesterday's statement said. "Since that meeting no consultation has taken place, particularly in respect of the important issues brought about by the IRB's declaration in Paris, and no representation has been sought for First Division clubs on the commission they have set up."

Hallett hopes that by staying in touch with Peter Wheeler, the Leicester president, he can effect a reconciliation.

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