Rugby Union: Players as power tool

Chris Rea says the withdrawal of players is Epruc's last desperate ploy
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What are we to make of the mass withdrawal of Sale players from the Northern Counties side to play the New Zealand Barbarians today on the grounds that the fixture is a mismatch? Can it be that the southern softie syndrome has finally moved north of Watford? A preposterous notion. One thing is certain - it is considerably more of a mismatch as a result of this sorry decision by Sale's deserters.

The reason apparently is the players' disenchantment with the shambolic organisation of the Northern administration and the punishing schedule over the next four weeks, although it is not too difficult to see English Professional Rugby Union Clubs' shadowy presence in the background. With the majority of senior clubs refusing to release their players for Divisional rugby Epruc are continuing to use their single asset, the players, as the bludgeoning tool to win a submission from the RFU. Sorry to keep on about this folks, but it is important. It may be tiresome to the vast majority of rugby enthusiasts who just want to get on with the game but, believe me, whoever wins this war will not only control the game in England but will exert massive influence and authority elsewhere.

Why is it, do you think, that no England player has yet signed a Rugby Football Union contract? Is it because the players are holding out for a better deal or are they simply waiting until agreement is reached between the two sides? It is neither. It is because they are so contractually bound to their clubs and, through them, to Epruc that they cannot sign the RFU contract. There is in existence a tripartite contract between the players, the clubs and Epruc which states that no player can play for any team anywhere in the world without the consent of his club which can be withheld without giving a reason. No club can give that consent without the agreement of Epruc which can be similarly withheld. The ramifications of this, you will see immediately, spread far beyond England which is why the International Board held an emergency meeting last week.

In order to make this contract negotiable the owner clubs have paid pounds 1.5m into the player's pool, of which pounds 700,000 has already been paid to all but a few of the England squad players. As a consequence the players cannot guarantee their availability for England and are therefore powerless to sign the RFU contract.

It is the last blackmailing tool in Epruc's possession and what happened on Friday when the Sale players belatedly withdrew from the New Zealand Barbarians match could well be repeated before England open their Five Nations' Championship campaign against Scotland at Twickenham on 1 February. Should this happen perhaps, for once, the RFU might be proactive and select a third or a fourth XV, billet them in a hotel close to Twickenham and produce them as if by magic on the day. Perhaps, even better, this lamentable mess will have been cleared up and Epruc will have been no more than a temporary blot on rugby's landscape.