Rugby Union: Prepare for the bloodiest battle

Chris Rea says the new skirmishes show the clubs' designs on control of the game
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHERE to start? The expulsion threat from the International Rugby Board, Fran Cotton's call for a Special General Meeting to remove the Rugby Football Union Council, or the white smoke billowing from the talks between the RFU and the clubs, which is being interpreted by some as a sign of everlasting peace but more likely means that the chimney has gone on fire?

The joint communique issued on Friday was an extraordinary PR gamble. The first question to be asked is what the hell the RFU are doing continuing their talks with the group that is challenging their authority in the European courts? Furthermore, the statement virtually forces the RFU to commit themselves to an agreement which cannot be acceptable to the rest of the game.

For me, however, the most telling comments of a week as bewildering as any in rugby's turbulent past, came from two owners, Nigel Wray, a member of the clubs' negotiating team, and Chris Wright. Very briefly, they lifted the lid just long enough to give us a peek into what the future holds should the clubs get the power they crave. If, as now seems likely despite the concerted campaign to dismiss the IRB threats as mere bluff and to hail the peacemakers on both sides of the divide, the tide of opinion begins to turn in Cotton's favour, the comments of those two men might do for the English clubs what Sheffield did for Labour under Neil Kinnock.

I have a high regard for Nigel Wray, a genuine rugby enthusiast for whom Saracens is much more than an executive toy. He and his first-class team, both on and off the field, have achieved a great deal in a short time and have set a number of examples for others to follow. For all that, Saracens, possible winners of the double and a major investor in players, are not coming close to making a profit. And it is this which forms the basis of the club's true agenda and which is, or should be, the issue which the game must address. It is the price rugby as a whole must pay to provide clubs like Saracens with the wherewithal to feed their increasingly expensive habit.

An enthusiast Wray might be, but he clearly doesn't understand his rugby. By claiming that the cup final is played at Twickenham merely as the result of "an historical accident" and by stating that the clubs should organise the cup and play the final wherever they choose, he is not only displaying his ignorance of rugby's past but he is revealing exactly where the clubs see their future as governors of the game in England. His beliefs were reinforced by Wright who demanded that the cup finalists received one- third of all gate receipts, thereby denying the rest of the game the money which is its very lifeblood.

The two finalists, meanwhile, disappear with the cash to spend yet more money on new players, all the while widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. But it is when the talk turns to the European Cup that things become really interesting.

Scotland, Ireland and Wales, claims Wright, are merely making up the numbers. The real competition is between England and France who must therefore organise and run the competition in a way which best suits them. It was that very point which was made at a meeting of the European Rugby Cup last week. But for this to have any chance of success the French would have to lend their full support and Michel Palmie, the French representative on the European Council, has made it very clear that although there might be a handful of renegade clubs in France taking the Premiership's stance, there is not the slightest possibility of a French breakaway from the ERC. Nor will there be an alliance in the form of an Anglo-French league.

So on Europe the English clubs appear to be travelling up a cul-de-sac. Similarly with primacy of contract. When Clive Woodward announces his party to tour the Southern Hemisphere this summer or, more to the point, when he lists those players who are not available to tour, the issue of primacy of contract will once again come to the boil. No one is suggesting that the clubs are refusing permission for their players to tour with England. It is simply that so many of the leading players are in no state to go. Can you imagine the All Blacks, the Springboks or the Wallabies embarking on an important overseas tour without their best players? Of course not. And for the very good reason that the players' contracts rest not with the clubs but with the unions. Even if Martin Johnson does make the trip, he will be in no condition to face up to the rigours of four Tests against the world's best sides. That has not stopped Leicester playing him, any more than it has dissuaded Wasps from playing Lawrence Dallaglio or Saracens from fielding Kyran Bracken. All three are in need of a long rest.

Primacy of contract and the right to govern are the two key issues now being negotiated by the clubs and the RFU. We are told that the two sides are very near to reaching an agreement which will be acceptable to both sides. Now that I would really like to see. If, as both Wray and Wright claimed last week, primacy of contract must remain with the clubs and that no club should play another whose players were contracted to the RFU, then that is in breach of the IRB regulations. The same applies were the RFU to cave in on the right to organise domestic and cross-border competitions, including all broadcasting sponsorship and advertising rights. The only concession which might be acceptable would be the increase in the numbers playing in the Premiership. But this would merely dilute the standard and increase the number of meaningless matches. It would also cause yet more chaos to the structured season, given that the leagues are due to be pruned to 10 clubs in two years' time.

When Cotton called for an SGM last Friday he warned once again that the international community's patience had run out and that the RFU's apparent refusal to control the clubs could have dire consequences. There are still those, however, who, through a mixture of ignorance and arrogance, do not accept that the IRB's ultimatum is anything other than a shot across the RFU's bows and that when push comes to shove it will be the clubs pushing and the IRB shoving off.

The IRB's stance has been described as self-righteous and gratuitous. Why pick on England is the cry? What seems to have been forgotten is that the English clubs have taken the world game to court in order to achieve their own ends. This is a fight to the death. It is one that neither side can afford to lose, but equally it is one that the clubs cannot be allowed to win.

Comments