Rugby Union: League talks fold to add to farce

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RADICAL PLANS to introduce an elite 20-team British League next season were officially declared dead in the water yesterday and the latest in a long line of leadership failures left the professional club game in these islands sinking quickly. Recriminations were flying thick and fast last night with the Rugby Football Union, the driving force behind the initiative, pointing an accusatory finger at their opposite numbers in Wales.

The RFU lambasted the Welsh negotiators, led by the WRU chairman, Glanmor Griffiths, for effectively emasculating the initial talks by insisting on a number of unexpected pre-conditions. These included a demand that eight rather than four Welsh teams be included in any new cross-border competition and an insistence that the senior English Premiership clubs drop a controversial application to the European Commission that threatens the legality of a number of International Board regulations.

However, the Welsh were by no means alone in wrecking a plan that might just have reversed British rugby's steep descent into pure farce; virtually all interested parties - the English clubs, the Irish Rugby Union, the organisers of the pitifully devalued European Cup, members of the IB executive, even the French - were engaged in breathless pursuit of their own self- interest and no-one volunteered to budge an inch. "We've seen more goalposts moved over the last 48 hours than at Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning," said one RFU source yesterday.

Agreement would have facilitated a late rapprochement between the English clubs and European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisers of the last three Heineken Cup tournaments. Sadly, any such deal now seems unlikely. The English intend to press ahead with a domestic 26-game Premiership programme, much to the bitter frustration of tens of thousands of supporters seduced by the magnetism of European competition, leaving ERC board members the unenviable task of salvaging some sort of sponsorship and broadcasting deal from the wreckage.

Welsh rugby is now in greater turmoil than ever; the two most powerful teams in their eight-strong Premiership, Cardiff and Swansea, remain in dispute with the union and, at present, do not have a fixture list between them. The Scots are scarcely better off now that their two "super-district" sides, Glasgow Caledonians and Edinburgh Reivers, have been denied the oxygen of regular cross-border contact.

Brian Baister, chairman of the RFU's management board and the principal architect of the British League plan, was left high and dry by the impasse. Although he remained diplomatic to the end - "We recognise the logistical difficulties involved in putting a competition in place for this coming season," he said - Baister was said to be deeply unhappy with the uncompromising negotiating stance of the English clubs, some of whom were reluctant to accept any Scottish involvement.

Baister has called all 28 Premiership clubs to a meeting at Castlecroft tomorrow and he expects a domestic fixture list to be produced immediately. "We're disappointed that we could not agree a way forward," he said.

Meanwhile, Bristol's formal announcement of a multi-million pound rescue package financed by Malcolm Pearce, a local businessman, was delayed by 24 hours because the club were waiting for a firm commitment from Jack Rowell, the former Bath and England coach, after offering him the directorship of rugby at the Memorial Ground.

Federico Mendez, one of the outstanding front-row forwards in world rugby, has joined Northampton from Bath. The versatile Argentinian plays at prop or hooker and his arrival at Franklins Gardens alongside Pat Lam, the Samoan flanker, and David Dantiacq, the French centre from Pau, gives the Midlanders sufficient armoury to mount a meaningful Premiership challenge next season.