Rugby Union: IRB pitch into European battle

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SOME TIME next month the European Commission will consider the English clubs' application challenging the regulations of the International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union.

To say that the Commission's decision will have far-reaching effects on the future of the game would be the understatement of the century. The consequences for rugby, not only in this country, but worldwide, will be cataclysmic should the clubs prevail.

From the start of this lamentable episode the RFU's failure, or reluctance, to recognise the importance of the application has been crucial to the clubs' cause and has helped sustain them in the belief that their case will be upheld. Despite repeated requests to see the application, the RFU Council members have been denied access to it by their own management board, who are still peddling the line that the clubs are merely seeking clarification. It is blatantly obvious to all of us who have read the submission, however, that it threatens the entire fabric of rugby.

When the RFU were summoned to Dublin in May they gave the IRB assurances that they would put up the most vigorous defence against the application. But there is the growing suspicion that it is unlikely that it is anything like robust enough to influence the Commission. Understandably the IRB have decided to set off their own alarm bells and have circulated their response to the European Commission to a number of selected rugby writers. They must have been disappointed by the response thus far, although hardly surprised given the imbalance in the reporting during the last year and a half.

The IRB's submission is a 54-page document, which is exceedingly well researched and carefully crafted, containing references culled from a wide range of sources. To this layman the arguments in favour of the IRB appear overwhelming, although the law is, on occasions, a sufficiently retarded ass to overrule even the most powerful advocacy.

The central argument in the IRB's case is that the clubs' premise that a single group can operate in isolation from the rest of the game on which it depends for its survival is seriously flawed. If the product, once it is created, is to succeed, it requires the support and co-operation of all its constituent parts.

It is this element of inter- dependence which England's leading clubs are contemptuously ignoring, although the point is also made that they do not so much object to the centralised organisation and commercial exploitation of rugby as to the fact that they are not the ones controlling it.

This is, therefore, all about power and control - control of the players, the competitions, the money and ultimately the game. One of the most powerful voices behind the call to change the Lions' touring programme was the clubs', as it is in the move to reschedule the Five Nations' Championship.

Their failure so far to achieve either does not mean that they will not try again in more favourable circumstances. In truth, if the clubs and some influential members of the RFU get their way there won't be a Five or even a Six Nations' Championship for very much longer.

Throughout the IRB's response the tone is moderate and conciliatory, which is in contrast to the stridency of the clubs' submission. The arguments raised by the clubs concerning restraint of trade and opportunity are countered, as is the clubs' contention that they should be treated like Premiership football clubs.

Rugby's position in the fast expanding leisure market, its immaturity as a professional sport and its financial dependence on the international game are fully documented. So too are the inconsistencies in many of the clubs' arguments, the factual inaccuracies and the downright falsehoods. There is frequent reference to the clubs' habit of constantly changing the goalposts to suit their own ends at the expense of other areas of the game. Implicit in the criticism of the clubs is criticism of the RFU for allowing them to get away with it.

Much is made of the broadcasting rights and the legal minefield of who, or which, body owns them. The IRB, in common with many of us, believe that the English clubs are already receiving far more than their product is worth from the monies provided by BSkyB. Along with the sponsorship of their own competitions, this amounts to a guaranteed minimum of pounds 10m per annum which would have been increased by a further pounds 4m had the clubs not boycotted Europe this season.

Yet this is still not enough, which reinforces the IRB's point that the issue is not just about money but control. This, they argue, cannot be in the interests of the game - "only the governing body can be trusted to act in the greater good of the game as a whole".

The recurring theme, however, is the disastrous effect of a pure monopoly on any enterprise and the need for competitive balance. No game can be financially successful without even competition. This was argued in the case between the United States and the National Football League.

"The net effects of allowing unrestricted competition among the clubs are likely to be, first, the creation of greater and greater inequalities in the strength of the teams; second, the weaker teams being driven out of business; and third, the destruction of the entire league," the IRB say. This is already beginning to happen in England and, the IRB contend, this is precisely what the clubs would do, not only to their own league but ultimately to the game itself.

Their case now rests. For the sake of rugby we must pray that it is considered by men of vision and understanding.