Rugby Union: Power struggle in prospect

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The Independent Online
Fran Cotton outlined plans to revolutionise English rugby yesterday. As David Llewellyn reports, they met with a mixed response.

The Twickenham cat was unleashed among the club pigeons yesterday as Fran Cotton unveiled his vision for the future of English and, more importantly, England rugby. When the elements of the lengthy document were leaked to English First Division Rugby who represent the leading clubs they fired off a verbal broadside or three.

"The EFDR maintains," said a statement, "that the Rugby Football Union's plans... amount to an all-out attempt to strangle professional club rugby." But, as it turned out the proposals made by Cotton and the eight other members of the working party, including the England coach, Clive Woodward, made a lot of sense.

The elements that most anger the clubs are the proposal that from the year 2000 English representation in the European Cup should be via provinces, comprising England qualified players only, and that all England players should be contracted directly to the RFU. The clubs have just announced that they will not be taking part in any future competition organised by European Rugby Cup Ltd but Cotton expressed himself optimistic that Bill Beaumont, the RFU's representative on ERC, would be able to persuade the clubs to rescind their decision not to participate next year.

As for provincial representation, Woodward, who this time last year was coaching at Bath, was all for it. "I think the document is potentially fantastic. We can't go on skiing uphill," he said. "The provinces will mean that we will have 60 England-qualified players in a top tournament. Bath have probably three or four players who could play for England and they are in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday. That is just not good enough."

Cotton said: "I envisage this being put in place over the next five years. Our target is the 2007 World Cup. We want to be able to say with some confidence that England will win it. This plan, Club England, will go a long way to achieving that goal."

And by the end of a long day Peter Wheeler, the EFDR spokesman was softening its line, saying: "It is long on policy, short on detail. We both want the same ends, but we've got to sit down and look at it in detail."