Rugby Union: Pugh predicts end of Europe split

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VERNON PUGH, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, believes that the dispute which has kept the English clubs out of European rugby could be settled next week.

The French directors of European Rugby Cup Ltd have been talking to the English clubs and will report back to the main board tomorrow. "I'd like to think things will move on from next Thursday's meeting," he said. "The date by which everything was due to be sorted out was 31 January. It would be nice if we could do it by next week. What we need is a structured season in which Europe fits in properly. The French have been making it clear to the English clubs that all the talk of an Anglo-French competition is a non-starter. There are no problems in terms of finance for the European Cup. We have a four-year deal with ISL Worldwide that is worth a minimum of pounds 10m and should grow to pounds 15m.

"On top of that, all the TV companies in France are showing fantastic interest in buying up the rights there for next season onwards and we've shown in the past with the Sky TV deal what can be achieved in the UK."

Meanwhile, the Wasps manager Nigel Melville will warn his players that tonight's London derby with Saracens at Loftus Road is a match that neither side can afford to lose. Third-placed Saracens currently hold a two-point advantage over Wasps.

"It's obvious that neither of us can afford to lose more ground on Northampton and Leicester at the top," he said. "We have both lost to a bottom-two club recently, Saracens against London Scottish while we have come back from the North-east beaten by West Hartlepool."

Wasps have already gained partial revenge for Saracens' 48-18 win over them in last year's Tetley's Bitter Cup final. They won the return Allied Dunbar Premiership One match 31-17, and Melville said: "It would be satisfying to do the league double. We would go back third after our weekend defeat and Saracens' win, which enabled them to jump over us."

The Saracens player-coach, Francois Pienaar, who is still sidelined with a foot injury, is determined to stop that happening despite his side's patchy recent form.

"We have played nowhere near our best since Christmas, losing to Scottish and taking a long time before the tries started flowing when we beat Bedford last weekend," he said.

"At least we did put away the scores but it gets harder now, although we have Alain Penaud recovered from his `dead' leg to take the decisions at stand-off."