Rugby Union: Seven days to shape a new world

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The Independent Online
SEVEN days which shook the rugby world or a soggy squib? How will the summit meeting of the International Rugby Board, which is taking place in Dublin this week, be viewed by those who will have to deal with its fallout? In one respect at least it will be different from its predecessors. There are likely to be as many lawyers present as there are representatives of the world's leading rugby playing nations. The Rugby Football Union are anticipating a rough ride and are leaving nothing to chance. They are taking their legal advisers as minders and by the end of the week they will probably need all the protection they can get.

The principal case they have to answer concerns what the other countries perceive to be the RFU's policy of appeasement towards their top clubs. This has taken a number of forms in recent months but the issue which most concerns the IRB is the English clubs' challenge to the regulations of the Board and the RFU. The latter's response has apparently been signed off and is on its way to Brussels, although that knowledge will be of less interest to the IRB than the content of the document.

This will be just one debate during a week when, once again, the business of playing rugby will be eclipsed by the business of playing politics. The RFU, should they succeed in allaying the fears of their rugby brothers on the European front, will have another battle to wage closer to home. The Celts are up in arms, claiming that the RFU, despite repeated requests, have failed to meet their obligations following their television agreement with BSkyB. When that deal was concluded the threat of expulsion from the Five Nations forced the RFU to sign an agreement guaranteeing a percentage of the television revenue to the other home countries. So far, not a penny has been paid and now the RFU are insisting that the agreement is not legally binding. This is not how the Celts see it and there are sure to be some lively exchanges.

As is evident from these pages, the Saracens publicity machine has been working overtime. With the greatest of respect to Peter Deakin and taking nothing away from what he and his team have achieved at the club, his experience in rugby union hardly qualifies him as a leading authority on the subject and when it comes to getting the full picture in focus his opinions might just be a little distorted. But, as he says, no one would deny him the right to express them. I have also received a detailed response from the Saracens owner, Nigel Wray, to my article last week. A number of his comments will no doubt be exercising the minds of the IRB in Dublin because they raise fundamental issues which will have to be addressed. "In the professional era," he writes, "clubs cannot let any authority dictate how they run their business. Would any manufacturing or service sector hand over control of its revenue sources to its trade association or regulator?" The answer to that is a resounding yes if, like club rugby, it was wholly dependent for its survival on the financial handouts from that source, whether it be a trade association, regulator or the governing body.

Not even the most blinkered club owner can believe that his product, in isolation from the game's most valuable assets, is worth the sums of money at present being doled out to the clubs by the RFU from their overall television income. Good grief, the television companies are demanding that the clubs pay them to screen their matches, not the other way round, and still there are no takers.

The simple fact is that week in week out English club rugby is being subsidised by Twickenham. Without that their financial plight would be even worse than it is.

On another controversial topic Wray claims rather grandly that the spectators want to watch the best of the English and French clubs in competitive leagues and competitions. But what would be the consequences of an Anglo- French alliance? The first would be the rapid collapse of Scotland, Ireland and Wales to third- or fourth-class status and the eventual demise of the Five Nations' Championship, the most profitable and marketable property in rugby union, bar none. Is that what the spectators want? Is that in the best interests of rugby? I don't think so.

"Yet," continues Wray, "the RFU still has a huge role to play. It is responsible for our international side... [and] is our regulator in relation to the laws of the game and discipline." How ironic then that last week Bath and Cardiff should reach a cosy agreement to save Victor Ubogu from further punishment following his dismissal in the unofficial match between the two. So much for the clubs' view of the RFU as the game's disciplinary regulator. Happily Twickenham has, in this case, flexed what muscles it has left, but the warning signals are clear - anarchy is around the corner. As for the international game, if Wray's vision of the future is realised, international rugby union will slip down the same dark alley as rugby league and play a supporting role to the clubs.

This is not the cynicism referred to below by Peter Deakin, nor is it the fantasy world of the investors. This is the reality and these are the critical issues which have been facing the game since the start of the professional era. So far they have been skirted around, occasionally they have been prodded from a safe distance but mostly they have been ignored. The next few days could be a tumultuous, tempestuous and momentous or they could be disastrous. Either way, the future of the game could depend on the decisions made in Dublin this week.

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