Rugby Union: Players `in danger' after withdrawal

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The Independent Online
Rugby's internecine power battle has bordered on the farcical for the past nine months, but even the cynics stopped laughing yesterday as fears for players' safety grew in the aftermath of the latest breakdown in talks between the leading professional clubs and their governing body, writes Chris Hewett.

Once Epruc, the clubs' umbrella organisation, took the predictable step of formally withdrawing the top 100 players in the country from the forthcoming programme of divisional matches - a direct result of the collapse of talks with Rugby Football Union representatives in Northampton on Wednesday - the potential repercussions of fielding under-strength sides against tourists as powerful as Queensland, the Junior Springboks and, in particular, Argentina took centre stage.

Tony Jorden and Phil Keith-Roach, leading lights in the London division, were put in the position of having to replace a team full of top-level performers with a hotch-potch collection of relative unknowns from Rosslyn Park and Havant, two Third Division sides, for next Wednesday's match with the Pumas. "It's shambolic," Jorden said. "My worry is that players from that level could be exposed to danger in the scrums. This is causing incredible confusion among the players, who are the most important element."

Richard Hill, the Gloucester coach, had already withdrawn three of his leading players from the South-West side who face the South Africans at Exeter on the same day. "They are too vulnerable playing in such a weak team," he explained.

Apart from the safety concerns, the Epruc boycott makes a mockery of the national management's selection plans for the England A team, who play all three touring sides in the space of four days next month. At the moment the squad is drawn entirely from Epruc clubs.

Epruc was still waiting for a response to their request to address the entire RFU committee a week today. Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Leicester and one of the club's regular negotiators, fanned the flames by raising the renewed possibility of a breakaway by the senior sides.

"We'll be writing to each individual member of the RFU asking for the chance to talk to the full committee before this thing goes further than anyone would wish it to," said the former England and British Lions hooker. "We do not want to leave the union but unless we do we may not get fair treatment. I'm getting bored with saying `this is the week we get an agreement'. I've been saying that for the last nine months.

"If everyone signed under duress it would be a recipe for disaster. Let's get the problem sorted so we can spend the next five years building up the game. Serious damage is being caused at the moment, from which we could take an age to recover."

The England pack leader Jason Leonard yesterday added his voice for a common-sense approach from both sides. The Harlequins captain, who wins his 50th full cap against Italy tomorrow week, said: "I think I can speak for all the players when I say we want this sorted out as soon as possible. A solution has to be found."