Rugby Union: Five Nations threat to England

Italy put on stand-by as long-running TV dispute reopens the possibility of expulsion
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The Independent Online
ENGLAND face expulsion from this season's Five Nations' Championship following the Rugby Football Union's refusal to confirm that they would unequivocally commit themselves to a 10-year accord over televison revenue which they signed with the other countries in September 1996.

They have been given a deadline of midday tomorrow by the Five Nations' Committee to toe the line, otherwise they will be replaced in this year's championship by Italy, who are due to join the competition next year in any case.

Last night, the RFU issued a complex statement which signalled support for the accord but with several provisos and the announcement that they were to set up a four-man team headed by their chief executive Francis Baron and the former England captain Bill Beaumont to represent them in further negotiations. "Due to uncertainties with respect to the position of the FFR [French rugby federation] in the accord and the status of certain broadcasting and commercial contracts entered into after the date of signature of the accord, there have been doubts as to the accord's validity," the RFU statement said. When pressed repeatedly a spokesman refused to say whether the RFU would meet the deadline.

If England are expelled, Italy would play Scotland and France at home and Ireland and Wales in Dublin and at Wembley respectively. Contingency plans are already in place for the payment of financial compensation to Ireland and Wales for the loss in revenue.

England's growing isolation from the rugby world has been in evidence for several weeks and this ultimatum comes as a result of the RFU's refusal to recognise the agreement they reached with the four other countries as a result of the television deal struck with BSkyB. That deal caused intense annoyance among the Celtic countries, who believed that collective bargaining would have realised more revenue.

As a result the RFU agreed to an independent valuation of England's international matches and a percentage of that to be paid into the common pool. In recent weeks, however, England have stalled over implementing the accord.

Following a day of frenzied activity at the meeting of the Five Nations in Dublin on Friday no final agreement was reached and the midday deadline on Monday was set.

Allan Hosie, chairman of the Five Nations' Committee, said: "There has been much speculation over recent times about the RFU's current position in relation to the accord. From both a sporting and commercial point of view, my committee is seeking urgent clarification from Twickenham on this issue.

"Although England's commitment to and participation in the Five Nations' Championship is vitally important, I have a responsibility also to the other unions and to the future stability of the championship. All unions, including France and Italy, were unanimous in their demands for the RFU to clarify quickly its position. I am confident that the clarification we are seeking will be forthcoming."

John Jeavons-Fellows, one of the RFU's representatives at Friday's meeting, initially played down the implications for England yesterday. "I think 'ultimatum' is an excessive word - there was nothing like that," he said. "Naturally, the Five Nations' TV accord was discussed and the other four nations are just seeking from the RFU a confirmation of its commitment to that accord.

"The other nations are looking for a response but, with the meeting ending late on Friday and the weekend then intervening, it will not be possible for us to do anything about it until Monday morning when the matter will be discussed with our chairman and chief executive. But I can't see there being any problem and I expect Francis will then reply on behalf of the RFU."

If England do not sign and are thrown thrown out, the RFU president, Peter Trunkfield, has said he will resign.

Chris Rea, page 14