Rugby Union: RFU caught in web of their own spinning

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The Independent Online
Even as the gravy train hit the buffers, the passengers were planning their next trip. As the Rugby Football Union made swingeing, but necessary, cuts in their staffing levels, the clubs, whose financial plight is much worse, were hatching yet more schemes to spend money they do not have.

Most of the critical comment surrounding Friday's cost-cutting exercise concerns the RFU's woeful timing of the announcement on cup day and the baleful effect that would have on the sponsors. But surely the question to be asked is how the RFU could have got itself into this appalling mess in the first place?

Alas, since the retirement of Dudley Wood, much maligned as the archetypal Old Fart but a brilliant administrator, and the onset of professionalism, the RFU were saddled with the most inept administration in their history. The hour came, but not the man, the dire consequences of which we are now witnessing. Friday's purge is just the start. There will be more redundancies and more pain from a variety of quarters before Francis Baron, the new chief executive, reaches calmer waters.

The RFU's failure to control their clubs and to contract their leading players, the lamentable financial deal with Sky, isolation from the international community and the grandiose but unsustainable plans for the development of Twickenham have crippled the RFU and have brought them to this sorry state. Baron is doubtless an extremely able man but all his pruning and restructuring work will be futile unless there are men of sufficiently high calibre in positions of power and authority.

For how much longer are the rank and file of the English game prepared to countenance this state of affairs? Since the removal of Cliff Brittle and the return of Fran Cotton to the back benches, the Reform Group, a vociferously proactive body and an essential balance to some of the RFU's wilder excesses, have fallen silent. As an opposition they have been as ineffective as the Tories but if ever the group required resuscitation it is now. English rugby, as I have been warning, is in grave trouble and is now close to collapse. The coming week will provide little comfort.

Regular readers may recall that some months ago I ventured the opinion that proposals for a British League, which were being pushed through with indecent haste by the English clubs, would never get off the ground. The entire project was simply a contrivance to ring-fence their unofficial accord with Cardiff and Swansea, which was not only in breach of International Rugby Board regulations but which brazenly broke the still-to-be-signed Mayfair Agreement.

A formally approved league would, however, give the clubs the official blessing they required, a free pardon and the freedom to proceed as they pleased. They were thwarted at the time and as a result turned savagely on Vernon Pugh, whom they saw as their chief tormentor. Making an enemy of Pugh was a blunder which the clubs will very probably regret. But having come second in this battle the clubs then embarked on a series of increasingly hopeless quests to form other alliances with the French and the Welsh.

Then, lo and behold, a few weeks ago and as suddenly as it had been abandoned, the British League was back on the agenda. Last week, however, the RFU, with mind-blowing audacity, backed their clubs by announcing that their preferred route was not a British League but an Anglo-Welsh competition. There and then at Twickenham and in the media it appeared that this was a fait accompli. Never mind that it caused apoplexy in Scotland and among those clubs outside the top 10 in England.

Today there is a meeting scheduled between the RFU working party and their Welsh counterparts, the outcome of which is likely to bring yet more disappointment for England's leading clubs and their supporters on the RFU.

I understand that the issue of an Anglo-Welsh league was scarcely mentioned at Thursday's meeting of the Welsh Rugby Union and that agreement was reached that unless a British League embraces Scottish teams and a larger representation of Welsh sides, there will be no competition. This would in turn scupper England's plans for Europe, in which they envisage a triangular tournament involving clubs from England, Wales and France.

Even accepting that the ideological principle that being one's brother's keeper does not extend beyond Hadrian's Wall, England's attitude towards the Scots, and their total failure to understand what damage a terminally weakened state of rugby in Scotland and Ireland would do to the world game, is unforgivable.

Unfortunately for England their problems are not confined to the troublesome bordering nations. They now have the deepest of divisions running through the top level of the club game.

Over the past 48 hours there has been frantic activity between Bristol and Monaco, the base of Tony Tiarks, who is the owner of London Scottish. Malcolm Pearce, the Bristol owner, not only wants to take over the club but to take over London Scottish's position in the First Division of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Understandably for a man who has had to commit pounds 6m in guarantees and who is concerned that the terms and conditions of the Mayfair Agreement which he signed up to are in danger of being broken by the establishment of a 10-club English elite, he is determined to protect his interests. Whether his plan falls within the regulations is another matter but it is a bold move which, if it fails, will inevitably turn into yet another court action certain to be supported by Bristol's fellow promotion contenders Worcester. What was Brian Baister's comment about bringing peace to the domestic game when he became chairman of the RFU?

Meanwhile the persistent rumours, all strenuously denied, that Sir John Hall is about to pull out of Newcastle and that the club is on the point of merging with West Hartlepool are gathering pace and strength, fuelled by talk that financial inducements have been made to clubs to move down to the Second Division next season in order to clear the way for the Super 10. Strap yourselves in for a bumpy ride.

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