Rugby Union: Paris talks put title in the shade

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THE ALLIED Dunbar Premiership still has seven full weeks to run but this afternoon's big matches at Leicester and Northampton - not to mention tomorrow's tasty little spat between Saracens and Bath, which is expected to draw upwards of 14,000 to Vicarage Road - have been wholly overshadowed by the boardroom drama currently being played out across the water in Paris.

When the shape of next season's European Cup generates more late-March headlines than the outcome of this season's title race, we can safely say that England's showcase club competition has become worryingly Pythonesque.

What we have here is an ex-championship.

Not that Martin Johnson and his Tiger-striped spoilsports from the East Midlands will be taking too many liberties when they welcome Mark Weedon's in-form Wasps to Welford Road this afternoon. Still deprived of their Test-class nerve centre of Austin Healey, Joel Stransky and Will Greenwood - what DID happen to him, as a matter of interest? - Leicester are aware that defeat by the cup favourites will leave them just a little exposed as they head for the tricky waters of Bath, Sale and Newcastle in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, they are eight points clear of Northampton - an advantage that gives them a good chance of wrapping up the title on or around 17 April. In any normal sport, attention would already have switched to the tussle among the also-rans for European qualification; today's Northampton- Newcastle match would be bursting with significance, as would the Saracens- Bath contest. But rugby, or the running of it, is entirely abnormal, hence the feverish speculation surrounding the likely outcome of this weekend's European Cup talks in Paris.

Recent assumptions of an early end to the English clubs' boycott of the world's outstanding club competition - disagreements over cash distribution and commercial negotiating rights led to last year's walk-out - appear to have been premature, largely because Vernon Pugh and his colleagues on the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd have hardened their stance in talks with Francis Baron, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, who has made it his personal mission to broker an agreement. "ERC aren't moving an inch and if they don't move over the next 48 hours, we won't be touching Europe next season," said one clubs insider yesterday.

Three senior RFU figures - Brian Baister, Terry Burwell and Baron - were joined in Paris last night by a clubs' delegation led by Tom Walkinshaw, the chairman of English First Division Rugby. They were meeting tournament directors and other interested parties, including the French clubs' negotiator Serge Blanco, in an 11th hour attempt to find some common ground before today's emergency ERC board meeting. Pugh, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, was thought to have tabled his own proposal - a document wholly unacceptable to the English - while ruling a joint Anglo-French blueprint out of court. "As things stand, it looks very bleak indeed," said one Englishman close to the negotiations.

Another political failure would have far-reaching ramifications, both for the tournament and the northern hemisphere game at large. A fully representative European Cup could easily generate something approaching pounds 25m next season, but that figure would be halved by a second successive English withdrawal. The financially-troubled Premiership clubs can ill afford to reject the millions on offer. At the same time, the commercial development of European rugby depends on a successful cross-border competition. Not for the first time, the worst-run team sport in the world is contemplating a lose-lose situation.

Harmony is in equally short supply at Sale. The troubled Manchester- based club has endured a week of behind-the-scenes unrest, all of it concerning John Mitchell, the former All Black captain who has been coaching at Heywood Road since 1996. Mitchell, who also assists Clive Woodward with England, recently relinquished his managerial role while making no secret of his desire to move to pastures new. Earlier this week, senior players accused him of spending too much time on international business and criticised his man-management style.

"To a certain extent, I can understand the players' concerns," said Adrian Hadley, the team manager, yesterday. "Patrick Austen, our chairman, has been speaking to John about his future role at the club and as soon as that is sorted, everyone will know."