RUGBY UNION: Home unions set course for more troubled waters

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The Independent Online
THE SO-CALLED guardians of northern hemisphere rugby staged their most important meeting for years in Dublin this week and succeeded only in securing a minor rearrangement of the gin bottles on the bar of their sporting Titanic. There was no agreement on the early establishment of a British league, no solution to the impasse over the European Cup and the threat of sanctions still hangs over Cardiff and Swansea, the rebel Welsh clubs, and their militant English brethren.

Allan Hosie, the chairman of the Six Nations committee and an executive member of the International Rugby Board, went out of his way yesterday to talk up the positive aspects of Monday's summit. He said there had been a frank exchange of views between representatives of France, Italy and the four home unions and that as a result, the word "trust" had been restored to the game's vocabulary. And the outcome? "Well ... er... um... we've set up a working party."

That working party will investigate the validity of a British league comprising leading clubs from England, Wales, Scotland, who have two district teams masquerading as clubs, and Ireland, who have no serious club activity at all. Hosie wants to present an interim report to the IRB next month. "I would say there was general enthusiasm for such a competition, at least in principle," said the former international referee.

It will take more than enthusiasm to get the project off the ground especially as Glanmor Griffiths, the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union, seemed intent on killing the idea stone dead. Griffiths professed himself in favour of a British league but added: "I can't imagine the WRU allowing its members to participate alongside English clubs who are intent on challenging IRB regulations and the governance of the game through their application to the European Commission."

Griffiths upped the ante still further by warning both Cardiff and Swansea, who have just denuded the Welsh Premiership by embarking on a series of unsanctioned friendlies with leading English teams, that they could expect some form of official censure sooner rather than later.

"Some of the things that are happening defy common sense. Wales is a small country and we cannot afford a deep rift within our game," he said. Hosie and company find themselves sandwiched between a rock and a hard place. They have pledged to do nothing that might devalue the European Cup, but by incorporating Ireland into the British league idea they would effectively create a European Cup minus the French. And if they attempt to get tough with the English clubs, who have effectively wrecked this season's continental showpiece by boycotting the tournament and taking valuable sponsorship with them, the hardliners will scupper the British league plan in a trice. They feel they do not need a new league anywhere near as much as it needs them; after all, they have the successful Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Yet the IRB, and its chairman Vernon Pugh in particular, insist that both the English and Welsh unions rein in their more recalcitrant members with a decisive show of strength; not easy when Cardiff expect to attract the biggest Welsh domestic audience of the season, perhaps as many as 10,00, when Saracens play at the Arms Park on Saturday. By contrast, Tuesday night's Aberavon-Ebbw Vale Premiership fixture pulled in all of 500.

"Look, we know we need to make our domestic rugby more attractive, to broaden the horizons of our clubs by encouraging them to play cross-border fixtures," agreed Griffiths. "But these things have to be achieved on the basis of a properly organised structure under the control of the unions." And would he be attending the Cardiff-Saracens match this weekend? "I don't suppose I could get a ticket," he smiled, a touch sadly.