Rugby Union: Fixture list produces yet more fuss

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The Independent Online
BRITISH RUGBY'S laugh-a-minute flirtation with the politics of the madhouse plumbed previously uncharted depths of absurdity yesterday as a new Allied Dunbar Premiership fixture list was published, only to be rejected by the purple-faced committee men of Twickenham before the fax machine had ceased transmitting. Actually, it was not a new fixture list at all: England's leading clubs simply regurgitated the schedule ruled out of court by the Rugby Football Union a fortnight ago.

The clubs were perfectly aware that the list would be spiked a second time, but opted to prolong their endless game of brinkmanship regardless. There are now only 15 bullshine days until the new season starts on 5 September - a mere eight days if you happen to be Welsh - and, as things stand, no one is giving an inch.

English First Division Rugby, the clubs' umbrella organisation, reacted to Wednesday's final collapse of its British league initiative by reiterating its intention to defy the RFU by offering Cardiff and Swansea - the two clubs seeking to extricate themselves from the narrow confines of principality rugby - regular fixtures on Premiership weekends. Sure enough, yesterday's schedule tacitly guaranteed both Welsh refuseniks a high-profile - albeit friendly - programme of 30 matches.

There was, however, growing doubt over Swansea's commitment to the rebel cause. Unlike Cardiff, who remain unshakeable in their refusal to sign a 10-year loyalty agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union, the All Whites from St Helen's have no wealthy backer to bankroll a fight to the finish. Their board of directors sat in emergency session yesterday and will meet the WRU again today in a bid to thrash out a solution.

"We feel strongly that Cardiff and Swansea should not be strong-armed or held to ransom by their union," said Doug Ash, the chief executive of EFDR. "We are obliged both morally and legally to come to their assistance and are offering them the prospect of exciting matches against top quality English opposition. If the unions are genuine about wanting a British league for next season, they should welcome the involvement of the top two Welsh teams as a precursor. British rugby cannot afford to sideline clubs of their stature."

Senior EFDR negotiators suspect that while the unions may be serious about the formation of an elite cross-border competition for the 1999- 2000 season, the International Rugby Board is anything but enthusiastic. Vernon Pugh, the chairman of an organisation now emerging as the most small-minded governing body in world sport as well as the most inept, said this week that any such league must be planned over "a few years" - a comment that left the English clubs seething with righteous anger.

Yesterday's events left the oval ball firmly in the RFU's half of the pitch. The clubs insist they are authorised to administer the Premiership as they see fit and say they have done nothing contrary to the terms of the Leicester and Mayfair agreements, their two existing deals with the union. "We've issued our fixture list and the season will go ahead on that basis," said one EFDR insider. "If the union attempts to discipline us, we have only to point to the signatures on the settlements."

And so it goes on. A fortnight tomorrow, Richmond will celebrate their move to Reading by hosting Newcastle, the Premiership champions, in a humdinger of an opening match, while Cardiff and Swansea take on Bedford and West Hartlepool respectively. Or not, as the case may be.