Rugby Union: Peace process put to the vote

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THE LUNATICS may be in charge of the asylum, but at least they are moderate lunatics. The ancien regime of the English game, the Rugby Football Union, has formed a united front with the nouveaux riches of the Allied Dunbar Premiership to reaffirm as sacrosanct the promotion clauses contained in the much abused Mayfair Agreement and, at a stroke, laid firm foundations for a positive conclusion to the political upheavals of the last year.

Yesterday's communique, issued jointly by the two bodies, made it clear that this season's Premiership Two champions would be automatically promoted to the top flight of whatever league or conference competition is put in place for next season and that the runners-up would get their tilt at the big time via the play-off mechanism agreed last spring. Those guarantees will almost certainly signal the end of Bristol's cynical plot to buy their way into the new elite by taking over the commercially challenged exiles of London Scottish. It also appears to rule out any immediate move towards a 10-team Anglo-Welsh league.

A wide-ranging conference system involving legitimate contenders from both existing Premiership divisions and Wales seems likely to win favour at today's meeting of English First Division Rugby's executive, which aims hammer out a final blueprint for next season's competitive structure. It is, as every serious rugby thinker is beginning to understand, the only solution that gives all parties an opportunity to extricate themselves from holes of their own making.

Public rumblings of discontent from a number of organisations, including English Second Division Rugby and the National Clubs Association, prompted yesterday's diplomatic offensive. "In recent days, much speculation and understandable concern has surfaced from clubs within the Allied Dunbar and Jewson leagues as to the effect of the creation of a new cross-border competition," the RFU-EFDR axis acknowledged before reiterating their support for the principles enshrined in the Mayfair Agreement and ensuring all clubs, even those outside the national leagues, their full say in the debate.

Meanwhile, Bath face a tortuous wrangle with local pressure groups over imaginative plans to spend pounds 30m on transforming the Recreation Ground into a stadium fit for the sporting high society of the 21st century. The European champions - at least for another five days - want virtually to double the Rec's capactity to 15,000 by rebuilding their west stand and constructing a new, grass-roofed east stand that would be housed underground when not in use.

"We have magnificent support; we are one of the very few clubs to show increased attendances this season," said the Bath coach, Andy Robinson, yesterday. "I would love to make this place a Leicester or a Gloucester. When you go to Welford Road or Kingsholm, the noise is amazing."

Sadly for Robinson and his club, some interested Bathonians prefer heritage to noise. "The Recreation Ground is the village green of the city and my own view is that the rugby club might be better off elsewhere; somewhere without the same restrictions and costs involved," said Major Anthony Crombie of the Bath Society. Another group, the Friends of the Rec, also greeted the rebuilding plans with a loud raspberry. The council chamber battle will run and run.

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