Rugby Union: `Mutiny' clubs face refereeing turmoil

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TWO OF this weekend's games in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, the most prestigious domestic competition in British and Irish rugby, were in danger of postponement last night as the political trial of strength between England's professional clubs and their governing body intensified. The Rugby Football Union suspended the appointment of referees for the matches involving Bedford and West Hartlepool, who both played unsanctioned fixtures against the rebel Welsh clubs, Cardiff and Swansea, last weekend.

Bedford, last season's Premiership Two champions, are due at Sale tomorrow while West Hartlepool, another newly promoted side, host London Irish on Sunday. Nick Bunting, the RFU's national referee development officer, confirmed that he had been requested by the union to delay any announcement of officials pending the outcome of an important management board meeting at Twickenham yesterday evening.

The singling out of Bedford and West Hartlepool was a clear raising of the stakes by the RFU, who are now under intense pressure from the international rugby community to discipline any English club choosing to play against the two Welsh mutineers in defiance of union bans. Both the English and Welsh governing bodies have consistently refused to provide officials for cross-border friendlies on Premiership weekends, forcing the clubs to pay disaffected non-union officials from Wales to take charge.

Spokesmen for both Sale and West Hartlepool, the home sides involved this weekend, confirmed that no officials had been appointed. "I can't believe the RFU intend to go down this track," Howard Thomas, the Sale chief executive, said. "In another five weeks or so we won't have any Premiership fixtures at all, simply because all 14 top-flight English clubs will have fulfilled their promises to play either Cardiff or Swansea. As far as I'm aware, the RFU are contracted to provide referees for Premiership fixtures and I'd be shocked if they flew in the face of their own commitments.

"Quite frankly, the situation borders on the farcical. We recently played Cardiff in a pre-season friendly outlawed by the Welsh Rugby Union on the one hand but sanctioned by the RFU on the other. We even had Ed Morrison, the top referee in the world, in charge of the game. Now, less than 48 hours before an important premiership match, we find ourselves in the middle of this nonsense. I've heard nothing from the RFU, so don't ask me what's happening."

The full RFU council was due to discuss the ramifications of the rebel fixture programme today. By extension, they were also considering possible disciplinary measures. As recently as Wednesday, Glanmore Griffiths, chairman of the WRU, said his union were preparing to impose sanctions on Cardiff and Swansea, and would urge their English colleagues to take an equally firm stand.

"It will be pretty rich of the RFU to postpone two Premiership games, given that they were only too willing to accept millions of pounds of Allied Dunbar money," one club insider said. "The whole position is plain daft. The best part of 10,000 people are clammering to watch Cardiff play Saracens tomorrow in a game the WRU don't want to take place. It makes you wonder, doesn't it?"

Any systematic refusal to appoint referees to Premiership games would leave the clubs in serious short-term difficulties. They had hoped to rely on two officials recently retired from the international game, Tony Spreadbury and John Pearson, in the event of an emergency, but both men are wary of raising two very public fingers to their own lords and masters.

The refereeing situation is complicated by a sudden shortage of top-class English officials. Stuart Piercy has yet to recover from knee surgery while two other regulars on the Top 10 list failed recent fitness tests and have been sidelined until they meet the required standard.

Meanwhile, Chris Wright, the Wasps' owner, predicted yesterday that a British league would soon rise from the chaos of the current club scene. "Sectional interests will fall by the wayside and we will have a league, simply because the benefits will blow right through the game," he said.