Rugby Union: Players' decision may hasten a split

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The Independent Online
England's rugby clubs were last night pessimistic about the prospect of preventing the game's second split in a century after the international squad formally sided with the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs, the body representing the clubs from the top two divisions of the Courage League, in their dispute with the Rugby Football Union.

The players' affirmation of their willingness to let Epruc lead the way means they are now unavailable for England selection since they will be contracted to their clubs, who will not release them for international training sessions or matches. The RFU has cancelled next Wednesday's scheduled England training session.

On Thursday the RFU revealed that it was offering contracts of up to pounds 70,000 to its internationals players. With endorsements and other commercial deals, the players' refusal to sign those contracts could cost the leading men up to pounds 150,000 each. It was unclear last night whether Epruc had had to make a counter offer to the players.

The clubs have been locked in negotiations with Twickenham for much of the year trying to persuade the RFU to let them have financial autonomy. They want to run their own competitions and have responsibility for discipline and registration of players. The RFU, with an infrastructure already in place and a need to pay the pounds 35m capital sum still outstanding to fund the reconstruction of Twickenham, has steadfastly refused to accede to the demands.

The seriousness with which the RFU views the dispute was underlined last night when it announced that it had appointed Sir Tim Bell - Margaret Thatcher's one-time favourite PR man and spin doctor - and his company Lowe Bell to advise it "in the areas of Parliament and business".

The RFU issued a statement yesterday saying it was "again most disappointed that the players have been brought into this dispute". The statement added: "The RFU is seeking to answer the many requests from senior club members to assist them in explaining the wisdom and benefits of remaining in the Rugby Union, and retaining the RFU as their governing body."

Donald Kerr, the chairman of Epruc, said: "I don't think the RFU can agree to what we want. Under the present constitution they would have to go to another Special General Meeting and we would have the 2,000 votes of the junior clubs against us. To change the constitution will take months. We think we have to go, but we hope we can come back."

If the clubs go there is now every chance that Epruc will take along some of the country's leading referees. Informal talks have been taking place with individual officials and the indications are that there is disillusionment among the referees, who are finding it harder to hold down a career outside the game and comply with the increasing demands made on their time to officiate and to keep fit.

Kerr insisted a split was just what Epruc did not want. "We would have been happy for the England players to have trained next Wednesday," he said. "We want our friendly independence."

He suggested that Five Nations matches would not be the only internationals under threat, saying: "The southern hemisphere countries will not come to Twickenham to play a third division England."

The statement issued on behalf of the England squad - Robin Hardwick, the Coventry prop, was again the only member not to sign the agreement - reiterated their support for Epruc, but conveyed a slightly ambiguous impression when it said: "In order to break the deadlock, the England international squad have entered into an accord with Epruc Ltd concerning their availability for RFU representative teams including the England team." This was clearly not an absolute declaration of withdrawal of labour.

Epruc is confident that it could organise an alternative tournament to the Five Nations. Following yesterday's decision by the England players, the Welsh clubs may also break away from their national body, despite a late offer of cash from the Welsh Rugby Union to try to keep them in the fold. If the Welsh joined them, as seems likely, the disaffected Scots would almost certainly follow. The French have already indicated their interest in playing an alternative England and the Italians would also hop on board.

The only doubt surrounds the Irish. The bulk of the Irish squad is contracted to English clubs, but it is unlikely that the players' boycott of the national side would be enforceable on the Irish.

The English clubs insist that they will honour their fixtures in the Courage League, but their participation in the Pilkington Cup is less clear. A glimmer of hope for Twickenham is the 11 October deadline, by which all 24 Epruc member clubs are expected to have gone to their own membership for approval to go it alone. There are indications that not all will do so. At least one First Division club is expected to stand against them and a further three or four in the Second Division are also thought to be reluctant to join the breakaway movement.