RUGBY UNION: RFU listen as clubs stand firm

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The Independent Online
BRIAN BAISTER was inching his way slowly along rugby's diplomatic tightrope last night, acutely aware that one false move would reposition that rope somewhere in the vicinity of his neck. The chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board met with a high-powered delegation of English club owners and chief executives and bought himself some time by agreeing to take their demands for the immediate establishment of a British league back to his colleagues at Twickenham.

The management board went into emergency session last night, charged with the task of finding a way out of the political impasse threatening to tear the domestic game asunder. The clubs' stance could hardly be more black and white: either the RFU and, by extension, the Welsh and Scottish Rugby Unions, give their blessing to a new cross-border tournament for the coming campaign, now just 16 days away, or England's leading Premiership sides openly defy the authorities by playing a season-long series of friendlies against Cardiff and Swansea, the dissident Welsh teams at the centre of the latest ructions.

Baister appeared to soften his position yesterday by agreeing to last night's meeting; on Tuesday evening, he re-emphasised his opposition to the early formation of a British league, dismissing it as "impractical". The chairman, elected last month after a bitter scrap with Cliff Brittle, an unashamed hardliner, supports the principle of an elite cross-border tournament but is under pressure both from the International Rugby Board, the governing body of the sport worldwide, and his more conservative RFU colleagues, who believe the clubs are acting outside the spirit and letter of the so-called Mayfair Agreement, a peace deal signed in May.

Club sources described last night's meeting as the "cut-off point", insisting that no further delay would be countenanced. But even if the RFU turned full circle and agreed to back a British league, they would still have to seek agreement with their fellow unions before seeking consent from the IRB. "Wherever you look in this game, people have painted themselves into a corner," said one RFU member yesterday. "I cannot for the life of me see a way out of this one."

Unauthorised games between English and Welsh clubs would inevitably involve rebel referees. Ed Morrison, the world's leading international official, ruled out any possibility of his participating in an unsanctioned match, but Hugh Banfield, the secretary of the Welsh Society of Referees, said yesterday: "There may be some refs here who have had enough of the WRU. The clubs will need people of high calibre for such a level of rugby, but I suppose it comes down to who pays the most money."

Meanwhile, the Australian Rugby Union underlined their public dissatisfaction with the performance of an under-strength England team in Brisbane in June by refusing Clive Woodward's side a second Test Down Under next summer. England will definitely play the Wallabies in Sydney on 26 June, but John O'Neill, the chief executive of the ARU, has decreed that the only extra match on offer is against the Australian Barbarians or the country's leading Super 12 state.

Only the Springboks could boast a welcome outbreak of harmony yesterday. Silas Nkanunu, a lawyer from Port Elizabeth, will become the first black president of the South African Rugby Football Union next month, filling the substantial gap left by Louis Luyt's forced resignation earlier this year. Nkanunu's 30-year commitment to the game in Eastern Province, the most enlightened multi-racial union in the country, ensured that his nomination would go forward unchallenged.

Leicester's England Under-21 international full-back or wing Tim Barlow is set to become the new Bristol rugby director, Bob Dwyer's first signing, after agreeing terms with the Allied Dunbar Premiership Two club.