Rugby Union: Leading clubs plan to corner League sponsorship

Rugby's money men took centre stage yesterday to prove once and for all that when the rich get richer, the poor get short shrift. Prominent among the various winners in the financial ball park were England's First and Second Division clubs, all of whom were relishing the prospect of a pounds 7.5m investment over three years by the Allied Dunbar insurance conglomerate.

Although Allied were in no rush to confirm their interest in financing the domestic rugby boom, club insiders were expecting the deal to be ratified next week. England's league set-up, the widest-ranging competition of its type in world sport, has been sponsored by Courage, the brewers, since its inception in 1987, but their agreement expires at the end of this season.

Sadly for the clubs outside the top two divisions, no money from the new deal will trickle down through the system, as it did in the days of Courage sponsorship. With the big-spending English elite hoovering up every last penny available next season, well over 1,200 lesser lights will be left to fumble in the dark for their own financial salvation.

Meanwhile, two of the English sides challenging for European Cup competition next season, Sale and Gloucester, were expected to set in motion money- making initiatives of their own. Sale's membership met last night to consider the ramifications of a major business investment, thought to amount to at least pounds 2.5m, while Gloucester are due to hold a similar general meeting tonight. If the West Countrymen ratify their proposed cash injection, Philippe Saint-Andre, the former French captain, could appear on the left wing at Kingsholm next season.

Yesterday's frenzied commercial activity threw up one obvious loser, however; Kevin Murphy, the England physiotherapist, withdrew from this summer's Lions tour of South Africa after a financial dispute with the management. Mark Davies, Murphy's Welsh counterpart, will make the trip instead.

"The four home unions were not prepared to pay me anywhere near the pounds 150 per day that is the recognised British Medical Association figure for employing a locum," said Murphy, who has travelled with the last three Lions parties despite running his own practice over and above his rugby duties.

"I am a professional physio and I need to ensure that someone keeps the practice going while I'm away. On previous tours, both the team doctor and I finished out of pocket, but we accepted we would lose money under the amateur regime. If England can recognise my worth at international level, it should be recognised by the Lions, too."

For all that, there was good news for the Lions yesterday. Tony Underwood, one of four chosen wings, was confident of recovering from the fractured jaw he sustained during Newcastle's weekend dust-up with Bedford in time to catch the flight to Johannesburg.

More importantly still, Keith Wood, the Harlequins and Ireland hooker who has been stricken by shoulder problems for the last two months, reported no ill effects from his run-out against Saracens on Wednesday night.

England's second-string Test squad will play four fixtures in Buenos Aires on next month's six-match tour of Argentina, which starts with a game against Cordoba. The trip is similar to the visit that England made in 1990, when they played seven games, with four in Buenos Aires.

ENGLAND A TOUR SCHEDULE: 21 May: v Cordoba (Cordoba); 24 May: v Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Cricket & Rugby Club); 27 May: v Argentina A (Buenos Aires Cricket & Rugby Club); 31 May: v Argentina (FCO Ground, Buenos Aires); 3 June: v Cuyo (Mendoza); 7 June : v Argentina (FCO Ground, Buenos Aires).

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