RUGBY UNION; RFU tightens takeover rules

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THE RUGBY Football Union may be entering into the spirit of this chaotic professional age by making major policy on the hoof, but at least it is attempting to shut the stable door before the horse has bolted. In an important move designed to restore a degree of order to a volatile situation, Twickenham officials are preparing to announce new rules that will effectively prevent any buy-out of an Allied Dunbar Premiership team - or, rather, a team's Premiership fixture list - by a non-English club.

The agreement, thrashed out at a series of recent meetings and ratified by the RFU council last Friday, is thought to give the Union a veto on where Premiership matches can and cannot be played. It should, therefore, dispel fears that Bristol might sell their 24.9 per cent holding in London Scottish to any of the non-English clubs said to be keen on purchasing a place in the top flight of the strongest domestic competition in the British Isles.

Last weekend the Bristol chief executive, Nick de Scossa, claimed clubs from Scotland, Wales and France had expressed an interest in doing business. However, none are likely to pursue that interest if they are unable to play Premiership games at their own grounds. Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, is circulating details of the new regulations to all Premiership clubs and is also holding a series of meetings with London Scottish, Bristol and Richmond, the three clubs at the centre of the takeover controversy that has led to so much negative publicity over the last week.

English First Division Rugby, the body representing the top 14 Premiership clubs, was again on the defensive yesterday as the row over its proposed shutdown of Richmond rumbled on. One of their number, the Harlequins deputy chairman Chris Haines, denied that the member clubs were operating under a "gagging order" carrying a penalty of pounds 25,000 for anyone speaking out against board decisions, but there was a distinctly semantic whiff to his denial.

Haines openly admitted the existence of a "code of conduct" that embraced the principle of "penalties for non-compliance" before insisting: "Reports of a punitive gagging order are misleading. The code does not amount to a gagging. It is just good sense; the clubs drafted the code and will abide by it."

On the other side of the world, the Australian captain John Eales indicated that he would regain full fitness in time for this autumn's World Cup. But Eales, by some distance the finest all-round player in the game, will leave it late. He does not intend to expose his injured shoulder to the rigours of international rugby until the Wallabies play their first tournament game against Romania in Belfast on 3 October.

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