Rugby union: Fury over Cotton's scare story

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The Independent Online
FRAN COTTON is either a legal sleuth straight from the pages of a John Grisham novel or the greatest scaremonger since Alfred Hitchcock. The biggest personality in the British game took up the political cudgels again yesterday, accusing professional clubs of plotting an overthrow of the International Board, the governing body of world rugby, and raising the spectre of England's expulsion from the 1999 World Cup.

Egged on by Cliff Brittle and Clive Woodward, the recently resigned former vice-chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board painted a conspiratorial scenario so dastardly the word "nightmare" was rendered inadequate. Cotton brandished a copy of the clubs' legal application to the European Commission for clarification of commercial and contractual rights, claiming its very existence exposed the latest peace RFU peace initiative as a "sham" and posed a real threat to England's participation in next year's showpiece.

"This issue transcends petty jealousies and internal squabbling and I'm not taking this stand for reasons of ambition or self-aggrandizement," he insisted. "The clubs' document challenges IB and RFU control of international fixture scheduling and the primacy of international rugby. The authorities would be allowed to schedule Test matches only with the agreement of a handful of senior clubs, who would release players only as and when they thought fit. If it goes through, it's World War Three."

All of which sent club activists spluttering into their business suits and reaching for the nearest denial button. Doug Ash, the chief executive of English First Division Rugby, called the allegations "ludicrous".

The clubs admit they have put a number of points to the EU, alleging that restrictive practices are built into IB regulations. Indeed, they have never made any secret of their planned recourse to the law. "The fact of the matter is that the clubs have intrinsic commercial rights that are sacrosanct and enshrined in European Union law," said Ash, a graduate of the Harvard Business School. "As a result of the RFU's previous intransigence, regulations are now being investigated by the Office of Fair Trading and the EC [EU].

"However, the EC submission was made at the end of last month, prior to the intervention of Peter Brook, the RFU president. Our hope is that the talks with the union will result in the OFT and EC inquiries becoming redundant." It was Brook who led last week's marginalisation of Brittle, the management board chairman, a move that led to Cotton's resignation on Saturday.

Cotton's talk of World Cup explusion appeared based on letters received from a number of major unions, including New Zealand and Australia, during the recent "Northampton Three" affair. But while the short-lived decision of Keith Barwell, the Northampton owner, to withhold his players from England's summer tour of the southern hemisphere left the RFU temporarily open to IB sanction, there is no suggestion that a perfectly legal approach to the EU could land the union in hot disciplinary water.

Union negotiators were scheduled to meet with their club counterparts yesterday to begin the search for a peaceful solution. Cotton and Brittle, meanwhile, intend to hold "grass roots" meetings in Taunton, Rugby, Huddersfield and Twickenham over the next fortnight as a prelude to yet another Special General Meeting of the RFU.