Rugby Union: Shadow of expulsion over England

Chris Rea reports on a fresh outbreak of hostilities in international rugby
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The Independent Online
THE International Rugby Board have written to the Rugby Football Union warning them that unless they can renegotiate certain key terms in the Mayfair Agreement with the clubs, England face expulsion from the world game.

Remarkably, the letter was sent 10 days ago which means that either the rugby hacks have lost their nose for a good story or else communications twixt Twickenham and Fleet Street as was, are not all they might be. Then again it could be the Gazza Factor which has so consumed the news hounds during the past week and which has proved beyond all doubt that this country has completely lost its marbles.

It is just possible, of course, that the RFU have done everything in their power to keep the lid on a document which is highly critical of their dealings with the clubs and which contradict their claims that the Board were satisfied with the assurances given by England at the meeting in Dublin last month. Far from being appeased, the IRB have made it very clear that the Mayfair Agreement is, in a number of areas, unacceptable.

The letter raises three areas of concern - the release of players for international matches, the English clubs' submission to the European Commission and the unofficial organisation of cross-border competitions. The Board are particularly concerned about the release of players representing unions other than England. This was once again highlighted last week when Richmond's Allan Bateman withdrew from the Welsh touring party in order to join the queue of players booked in for surgery during the summer. Indeed, there are so many casualties that it will take the full complement of the Royal College of Surgeons, working flat out round the clock, to clear the log jam.

It is an insult to our intelligence to claim that the clubs have been immaculate innocent parties in the decimation of the international touring squads.

England's humiliation in Brisbane yesterday was entirely predictable and there can be no defence for a system which sends such raw recruits into the international arena. International rugby is, and always will be, the principal means of financial support for the game, not only in England but throughout the world, a fact recognised by every country except England.

Europe is another serious concern for the IRB; they have noted that the clubs' application challenging the Board's regulations was made not to the Court but to the Commission, thereby circumventing the full legal process. The Board disputes the clubs' contention that they are merely "seeking to establish the legal position" and they have left the RFU in no doubt as to the consequences if the clubs are not brought to heel: "The IRB is a governing body for the whole of world rugby and not simply the Unions within the jurisdictional area of the European Union...

"It can only accept and retain in membership those Unions that are prepared and are able to abide by, and achieve conformity within, the Regulations."

The RFU have been informed that they must strenuously and actively oppose the clubs' application and they have been instructed to appoint solicitors to do the job. On the other hand if the RFU can persuade the clubs to withdraw the application then the Board would be content for this particular matter to rest. What the IRB are not prepared to tolerate, however, are the on-going efforts of the English clubs to set up an Anglo-French competition. Contrary to the regulations, meetings have been taking place between English and French clubs and potential sponsors have been approached.

The RFU have been told that these discussions should cease immediately and they are required to make the necessary alterations in the Mayfair Agreement - a document so ill- considered that it is not even acceptable to the group it favours.

The chances of the Premiership clubs, a number of whom are refusing to sign the agreement, accepting the changes demanded by the IRB are next to nil. The end of this interminable struggle is not yet in sight.