Rugby Union: Now in the jet age, their heads are in the clouds

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THIS IS the time of year when the Five Nations' Championship would, in the past, have been under way and would form virtually the sole topic of rugby conversation. This season it does not start until next month but is nevertheless being talked about for the worst of reasons: yet another battle between sets of administrators in the continuing war about money.

This battle concerns whether the Rugby Football Union is wrongly withholding money from the other unions of the British Isles. This money has chiefly been obtained from Rupert Murdoch's Sky company for its monopoly over England matches played at Twickenham and in Paris, with excerpts shown later on Independent Television.

The non-English unions are in a stronger position than they were a year ago, for several reasons. Italy are deservedly to join the competition next season in any case, so making it the Six Nations' Championship. If England are expelled, Italy can be admitted a year early to the competition, taking over England's fixtures. As I write, the RFU has made no firm response to the most recent ultimatum. So the premature admission of Italy is still a theoretical possibility.

A year or so ago Wales, Scotland and Ireland were regarded by some as having entered a state of permanent decline. They would be better off, these pundits maintained, playing one another, with Italy and possibly Argentina added to the second division. This would leave England and France free to join the countries of the southern hemisphere in the first division.

Admittedly rugby football has at last come to terms with the invention of the jet engine. Arguably, indeed, the game has embraced air travel only too enthusiastically. Some of the summer tours undertaken by the home countries (not only England) have turned into disasters that could have been predicted without any need to exercise clairvoyant powers.

The southern hemisphere countries now tour Europe briefly, sometimes simultaneously, in late autumn and early winter. There was a time when you could see the great South African, Australian or New Zealand players only if you managed to catch a game on a widely spaced tour. Today you have virtually an annual opportunity - the more so if you have the right sort of television.

These countries are perfectly happy to carry on as at present. They have no wish, as far as one can see, to form a top-five league with England and France. In the present dispute France (who have their own separate television arrangements) are on the side of the Celtic nations.

If Murdoch is, in a financial sense, necessary to England, England are in exactly the same sense necessary to Murdoch. A Five Nations' Championship excluding England but including Italy would be acceptable to many exiles living in England, provided France remained in the competition, though naturally they would prefer to have England present as well.

But such a competition would be of limited interest to the native-born English supporter - the kind of person who grew up with England's success in the 1980s and, even more so, in the 1990s, who is used to seeing England win at Twickenham, and who belts out "God Save the Queen" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" with more enthusiasm than my fellow-countrymen can muster for the hymns that they have now largely forgotten, if they ever knew them in the first place.

It is these English people who Murdoch is after to buy his television boxes with cards to insert in them. After all, that is why he entered into the contract with the RFU. The expulsion of England from the Five Nations would scupper the deal because no more international matches would be played at Twickenham, except those that the RFU had arranged independently.

The entire contract would have been frustrated, in which case Murdoch would presumably be justified in withholding any further payments, though doubtless the gentlemen in wigs would have a lot to say about that, and would charge a great deal for saying it.

Anyone who has a friend in matrimonial difficulties will, if he or she is wise, give this advice: not "stay together for the sake of the children" but "for God's sake try to work it out between yourselves and stay away from the lawyers". Alas, the people in control of rugby union football, at every possible level - the International Rugby Board and the unions, the unions and the unions, the unions and the clubs, the unions and the players, the clubs and the players - all seem incapable of working anything out between themselves. The only alternative that a civilised society provides consists, unhappily, of the lawyers.