The RFU was given some encouragement last night by Tom Kiernan, the Five Nations' committee chairman, who said there was still time to thrash out a solution.
The three Celtic nations plan to play a four-nation tournament from next season - and for the next 10 years - on a home and away basis from January to May. However, doubts were already being cast on its viability yesterday as it is believed that both Channel 4 and ITV have rejected invitations to bid for the rights, and it is highly unlikely that BSkyB would want to back it.
England were trying to be positive yesterday. Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, insisted: "We still believe there is room to manoeuvre. The RFU is fully committed to the Five Nations. We will continue to speak to the other unions. We are keen to resolve the differences we have. The RFU has no wish to be kicked out of the Five Nations. We have to keep talking until a solution is found." Hallet's views echoed those of John Richardon, the RFU president, who said he "remained committed to finding a solution".
Kiernan responded by saying: "If John Richardson, and any other officials want to talk at any time we will be there." But Kiernan warned that time was running out. Kiernan added: "If England think there is plenty of time to sort this out - they are mistaken. We are organising our own tournament at comparatively short notice and stadiums, hotels, supporters' flights all have to be arranged at shorter than normal notice.
"We also need to give notice that matches against England are off. However it is an appalling state of affairs that such a major tournament seems to be coming to an end. It gives us no joy. I don't see any justice in England's case for going it alone. They cannot cite France, because they have never been part of the four home unions. By selling the TV rights to their own domestic competitions and non-Five Nations internationals, they would earn far more than the rest of us anyway."
Kiernan's comments underline the gulf between the two sides. The RFU has negotiated an independent deal with BSkyB worth pounds 87.5m to broadcast all their home matches for the next five years. However the four other unions insist there should be an equal division of all Five Nations monies.
Sky is supporting England in its contention that the break-up is not yet a foregone conclusion. The satellite broadcaster made its offer to the four Home Unions (excluding France) 11 weeks ago, and is still prepared to negotiate a deal that would give Scotland, Ireland and Wales a total of pounds 96m over five years, compared to the pounds 87.5m already accepted by England, in exchange for television rights.
Sky appears to believe that the three Celtic nations have no choice but to accept the offer. If they go it alone, Ireland, Scotland and Wales might end up with just pounds 10m a year from the BBC or ITV, half what Sky is prepared to pay.
A spokesman for Sky said yesterday: "There is no question that Sky is not going to stand by the deal that was agreed last month.
"The agreement with the RFU is not dependent on England being in the Five Nations, although it would clearly be in everyone's interests for the Five Nations to continue with England. The Five Nations has endured 100 years of tradition and one would hope that common sense would prevail and that it will continue in its present form."
The RFU insist they are within their rights according to International Board regulations to negotiate their own broadcasting deal, as France have done for the last 12 years. An added complication is that the BBC has an existing contract with the home unions and France for next season. It is possible that one or more parties may resort to the courts to have that contract enforced.
One possibility might be for the RFU and BSkyB to calculate what proportion of the pounds 87.5m should be allocated to Five Nations coverage - two matches at Twickenham for each of five seasons from 1997 to 1998 - and for Twickenham to put that into a common pool along with the broadcast monies the other Home Unions are offered for their Five Nations matches. It is also understood that Sky would allow matches to be aired entirely on terrestrial television within two hours of their finish on pay-TV.
However optimistic the RFU may be there was glumness elsewhere. The England lock Martin Bayfield said, more in hope than anything else: "I think a compromise will be reached, but if the decision to kick us out sticks it would be a tragedy for England and the Five Nations. And I think it will have wider repercussions. For example do Wales, Scotland and Ireland then say they do not want us to play against their clubs in the European League?
"If it does go that far then England will have to look to other tournaments and other teams. I'd miss the Five Nations, it is bread and butter international rugby for anyone in the Northern hemisphere. But if we aren't in it, it wouldn't be the end of international rugby for England - we would find other ways to play."
Global power struggle, page 12
main paper, page 13
THE DOOMSDAY SCENARIO
What is likely to happen unless a compromise is reached
Scotland, Ireland, France and Wales to begin a Four Nations' Championship starting in January 1997. Matches to be played on a home and away basis, the tournament to run until May and to be screened on terrestrial television. The four nations to commit themselves to the tournament for 10 years
England excluded from the Four Nations' Championship, but will play France in friendly matches. England will also play southern hemisphere countries, though these, too, are likely to be only friendlies. All England matches to be screened exclusively live by Sky
Wales, Scotland and Ireland not to play England at any timeReuse content