Rugby Union: Mayfair means to a foul end

Chris Rea fears the peace deal will lead to the downfall of English rugby union
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The Independent Online
IT IS difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. If what follows is a touch schizophrenic it is because I am in two minds whether to view Friday's agreement between the Rugby Football Union and the clubs as a Scotsman or as someone who cares very much about rugby and its future.

As a Scotsman, I am, of course, thrilled to bits because a few years hence, when the consequences of this sell-out of the century are fully realised, England will be second-class citizens on equal terms with countries over which they have for so long held sway. Indeed, Scotland who, like Ireland, are putting in place a sound, sensible and affordable domestic structure, could well have overtaken them.

It is not at all clear what role the RFU will, in future, be playing in running the English game. They have surrendered to the clubs on so many key points that there will be little left for them to do. Incredibly, they have even made provision for their own demise in the chilling words - "the Rugby Football Union or its successor". What body could possibly succeed the RFU unless it is the clubs themselves?

The RFU can start by tearing up their mission statement to make England the best in the world. Whatever Clive Woodward may say in public, he must know in his heart of hearts that England can no longer aspire to the front rank of the world's rugby nations. This agreement will ensure that. Primacy of contract will remain with the clubs with an undertaking from the RFU that they will not seek to sign any player during that period. We need only wait until Tuesday when Woodward announces his party for the summer tour to see the full impact of this disastrous policy.

By agreeing that England will not be represented in Europe by top-ranking provincial or regional sides, the RFU have in effect scuppered any chance they might have had of getting the top clubs to return to the competition on the governing body's terms. Meanwhile pounds 3.5m in revenue from participation in Europe next season has been lost, although that appears to have been missed in the general euphoria. Once again, long-term gain has been sacrificed for short-term expediency.

It is bad enough that the dramatic drop in television viewing figures in England has reached epidemic proportions, but now the one opportunity to sell and promote English rugby as a global brand has gone for ever. The point was made in these pages recently that there is now more rugby union on television than ever before. That is true, but far and away the more relevant statistic is that there are fewer people watching it than ever before. Every time England have played at Twickenham this season between two and three million viewers, at the most conservative estimate, have been lost to the game. On club weekends the combined audience of the live match on Sky and the recorded highlights on Channel 5 is less than half the figures achieved in the days of Rugby Special on BBC2.

That is a calamity for a sport desperate to sell itself to a wider audience and in no way is it compensated for by the overall increase in spectators at premiership matches. Now, as a result of the inappropriately named Mayfair Agreement (the May bit is accurate enough but there can be nothing fair about a deal as one-sided as this), the Brittle-Cotton concept of Club England, with all its marketing and promotional opportunities, has been hijacked by a few small localised brands with nil value outside their own tiny parishes.

Again this has all been conveniently overlooked in the rush to acclaim the new spirit of togetherness. We are told that co-operation not confrontation was the basis upon which these talks were conducted, and there is no doubt that the RFU team at least have taken this very much to heart. So far as I can tell they have come away with nothing. The agreement to abide by the IRB and RFU regulations is rendered meaningless by the rider "so far as they are lawful". If those regulations are successfully challenged in the courts, then the clubs can ride roughshod over them and in so doing will take over a large share of the action from the RFU.

This agreement will be legally binding. But then so was its predecessor, the Leicester Agreement, which at the time was hailed as the way forward for clubs and country. That was until the clubs decided that it didn't suit their purposes. So now we have the Mayfair Agreement which in turn, no doubt, will be replaced by another charter for the clubs to do what they want as and when they choose to do it. The reaction of the other home countries to this agreement will be intriguing, although clearly of little concern to England. In the past couple of weeks the RFU have displayed scant regard for the world communities' disapproval of their actions, so the views of the three Celtic nations are unlikely to cause as much as a ripple on the millpond of peace.

Nevertheless, England's expulsion from the Five Nations' Championship a couple of years ago forced them to eat humble pie and with France at present standing shoulder to shoulder with their Celtic colleagues, perhaps England are more vulnerable than they realise. We shall see. It is not only the IRB's authority at stake here.

If it wasn't so terribly sad it would be a hoot and other sports must be standing by in blank amazement that rugby union has so casually and willingly surrendered its most treasured possessions. It is very doubtful if future generations will look back on Friday 8 May 1998 as a good day for English rugby.

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