Rugby Union: RFU to offer Dallaglio world-record pounds 1m

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The Independent Online
The Rugby Football Union is preparing to escalate its increasingly bitter conflict with the owners of the England's professional clubs by offering Lawrence Dallaglio, the national captain, a five-year contract worth pounds 1m. The deal would make the 25-year-old flanker the highest-paid player in the world game and, for a while at least, the most controversial.

Dallaglio is being placed under enormous pressure to become the first big-name England player owned lock, stock and barrel by the union rather than a Premiership club. His current deal with Wasps, the reigning national champions, expires at the end of the season and with Fran Cotton and the rest of the RFU hierarchy desperate to break the clubs' contractual stranglehold on the country's leading talent, his impending freedom makes him an obvious target.

Rugby has thrown up the odd millionaire before - David Campese and Will Carling spent much of their mutually antagonistic careers bracketed together as the game's first seven-figure high-rollers - but the sheer value of the deal being dangled before Dallaglio will make the southern hemisphere big guns green with envy. The All Blacks, for example, earn around pounds 100,000 a year from the New Zealand RFU.

However, Dallaglio is both fiercely loyal to Wasps and acutely aware that the Premiership clubs would react violently towards any agreement along the lines favoured by the union. Sir John Hall, the hard-line owner of Newcastle, has repeatedly stated that he would not allow an RFU-contracted player within a mile of his Kingston Park premises and he is far from alone in his determination to maintain the contractual status quo. The RFU move therefore throws up the bizarre possibility of a clubless Dallaglio spending countless weeks in a kind of Premiership limbo.

Primacy of contract - or, in simpler language, who owns who - is at the root of the crisis over this summer's England tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The Northampton owner, Keith Barwell, announced on Monday that he would prevent his Test contingent, who include Paul Grayson and Tim Rodber, from travelling. On Wednesday, Clive Woodward, the England coach, held a private meeting with his squad at Bisham Abbey and warned them that they risked forfeiting their immediate Five Nations places unless they could reassure him as to their availability.

No RFU figure would comment on reports of a Woodward ultimatum, but Barwell was almost incandescent as he prepared for an emergency meeting of club owners today. "It's put up or shut up time," he said. "Clive has dug himself into a hole, for the players told him at Bisham that if he forced them to choose between club and country, they would have to choose their clubs for contractual and common sense reasons.

"We want a little bit of professionalism and a little bit of common sense. We want a structure between the RFU and the clubs so we agree when the players are going to play and when they're going to rest. At the moment, the amateurs at the RFU - and I include Fran and Clive in that - still have this arrogance about them. The players are under contract to the clubs. What Fran and Clive are doing is asking my players to act illegally and break their contracts."

Doug Ash, chief executive of English First Division Rugby, the clubs' pressure group, said that a letter had been sent to Woodward "condemning his apparent bullying of the England players into accepting his views without reasonable debate or discussion". Ash added: "The letter asks him to withdraw his ultimatum and points out that failure to do so may lead to a hardening of attitudes amongst the clubs."

Richard Hill, the Saracens and England flanker, pulled off what might be seen as the tactical ruse of the season by ruling himself out of all further rugby for some time. Hill, who would have been in the front line of the battle over tour availability, needs surgery on a long-standing back condition and will go under the knife tomorrow.

"I realise I can no longer play to the best of my ability with the injury as it is," Hill said. "Something has to give."

Wales at Wembley, page 30