Rugby Union: `Guilty' RFU told to name its sentence

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MORE AND more curious. No sooner had the controversial merger between Bristol and London Scottish hit the first of what could be a series of legal buffers than the International Rugby Board, which seldom passes up an opportunity to further disrupt a sport that already feels disrupted out, threw another political spanner into the union works. The IRB revealed they had found the Rugby Football Union guilty of "conduct prejudicial to the interests of the board" - a judgement that could, in theory at least, have far-reaching consequences for the England national team.

Twickenham found itself in the IRB dock before Christmas over its response to a European Commission complaint filed by the professional English clubs, who want to establish a raft of commercial rights under EC competition law.

A month on, the board's disciplinary committee has reached its verdict, although its members were not quite bold enough to impose a punishment for fear of finding themselves in the nearest civil court. Bizarrely enough, they have asked the RFU to suggest its own sanction, to be considered by the board tomorrow week.

An IRB statement accused the RFU of concealing details of its EC response, despite earlier assurances of "absolute and unqualified support", and continued: "We found this unannounced change in attitude to be inappropriate conduct that board members could properly condemn." Having already denied the RFU pounds 60,000 in grant money because of the English clubs' rebel matches with Cardiff and Swansea, the board now has the choice of imposing a direct fine, suspending England from Test competition or expelling the union from the international community.

A fine is by far the likeliest sanction, although the RFU will be in no mood to pay up with a cheery grin. Stephen Baines, the IRB chief executive, indicated yesterday that, while the decision had been taken in all seriousness and that the full range of punishments were available to the board, nothing would be done to jeopardise this autumn's World Cup. "The sport continues to flourish because of the commitment of the board and the membership to act collectively in the best interests of the game," he said. "It is my hope now that the RFU will renew its own commitment to that principal so that we can move forward together."

That last comment would have been greeted by derisive laughter in the committee rooms of Twickenham, although the public response from the RFU was deafeningly silent. The union has acted on its own legal advice throughout this affair and the QCs will no doubt be in action again tomorrow when senior officials consider the judgement at a management committee meeting.

Meanwhile, the extraordinary attempt by Bristol to buy their way back into a top flight from which they were relegated last season by taking over London Scottish, appeared to have stalled last night. Both Tony Tiarks, the major shareholder behind the financially fragile Exiles, and Nick de Scossa, the Bristol chief executive, were meeting with union and club officials yesterday when news broke of a rival bid, tabled by London Scottish supporters enraged by the developments of the last few days. Given that company law obliges Tiarks to consider all bids, the process will likely be more drawn out than De Scossa imagined.

Along the A4 at Bath, Andy Robinson's fading champions received another setback yesterday when the local council refused to grant the club's request for a four-year extended lease arrangement at the Recreation Ground. Although Bath can play matches at their home ground until mid-May, there is no guarantee that they will be allowed to do so again.