Rugby Union: Little Englanders left in world of isolation

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The Independent Online
IN THE long list of contenders for the rugby quotation of the year, one stands out proudly. It was voiced by Brian Baister shortly after his election as chairman of the Rugby Football Union's board of management in place of Cliff Brittle.

"One of my priorities," he said, "will be to restore the good name of the RFU in the international committee rooms around the world." If these are not Baister's exact words, you will at least get the drift. Following the turmoil of the Brittle regime England, under Baister's command, would be welcomed back by the international set and peace and harmony would reign.

What Baister failed to appreciate was that the power brokers who had helped elevate him to his position were the very same men who had brought about England's isolation in the first place, and today the hostility of the world community towards them is stronger than ever. The minority in which the RFU now finds itself is microscopic - 84-1 to be exact. This is not a Celtic conspiracy but a worldwide chorus of disapproval. Is it not just possible that, on this occasion, Johnny Englander is out of step with the rest of the world and not, as many within the RFU so arrogantly believe, the other way around?

Some of Baister's remarks following the Dublin meeting of the International Board have beggared belief. Referring to the IRB decision to impose a pounds 60,000 fine on the RFU over the unofficial Anglo-Welsh matches, Baister said: "We don't want to be part of it [the Board] if this is the way it is going to behave." If there has been a more ludicrous comment this century, let alone this year, I haven't heard it. Where would England be without the full support and membership rights of the IRB? Exactly the same place as England's leading clubs would be without the full support and membership rights of the RFU. Nowhere.

In another separate outburst last week Baister claimed: "our relationships are fine except with one man." That one man, as we all know, is Vernon Pugh, chairman of the IRB, and if Baister seriously believes that England's current problems with the world body are caused by one man and that an issue as important as the game's future can be reduced to a clash of personalities, then one has to question his suitability for the office he holds.

It is simply not possible that Baister is speaking on behalf of the English game. The RFU has, by a series of catastrophic misjudgements, inept negotiations and craven leadership, got itself into this mess and, by its continuing failure to recognise that its duty is to its entire membership from the recreational to the international, and not just to a dozen or so top clubs, it has become even more deeply entrenched.

There was the opportunity in Dublin to start the healing process but instead the RFU chose confrontation by despatching its chief executive, Francis Baron, who had only been in the job a matter of weeks, along with a distinguished and very expensive QC. During the two days Baron was forced into at least one at least embarrassing retraction as a result of misleading information supplied to him by his committee. But despite the fact he won no friends and influenced no one, there has to be a degree of sympathy for him.

The fact is that Baron had no business being there in the first place. Where were England's representatives on the IRB, John Jevons-Fellows and Malcolm Phillips when they were most needed? For reasons best known to themselves and to their union, they kept their heads below the parapet and allowed the new man to face the fire.

This seemingly endless and impenetrable political maze into which rugby union has stumbled maybe a tiresome topic, but as the game edges ever closer to the brink of chaos nothing is more important than the need to find a lasting solution to the problems. The financial plight of the English clubs, the internal divisions in Scotland and Wales, British leagues and European cups, serious as they are, are secondary considerations to the main issue - the governance and control of the game.

Let there be no doubt about the gravity of the situation in which the RFU now finds itself. There are a number of options open to it. It can continue to brazen it out with threats of legal action and senseless posturing and hope that, as in the past, the IRB has neither the collective will nor the clout to make a fight of it and will ultimately back off. It can strengthen the bonds with its leading clubs, or it can sue for peace with the IRB.

Down this last route lies the only hope of salvation. The RFU is fast running out of fingers to stick in the dyke. The clubs are challenging its right to govern; the IRB threatens severe sanctions; the Celts are threatening legal action over the non-payment of monies due to them; the debts are mounting on all fronts; the clubs are making yet more demands - once again in breach of the sick joke that is the Mayfair Agreement - for financial compensation for the loss of their players during the World Cup; the Anglo-Welsh alliance is heading nowhere and the once-promising plans for a British League and the European Cup are being torpedoed. Rugby union is just about at breaking point.

One false step, one faint heart now and it will be a pale imitation of the game which, for all its faults and failings, was the envy of so many other sports around the world.

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