Rugby Union: State of the unions address

As the RFU claim peace in our time over the Five Nations, rugby's civil war moves on to a wider stage; England earn the distrust of the world
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QUESTION - what is the difference between the Rugby Football Union Council and a supermarket trolley? Answer - a supermarket trolley has a mind of its own. That the events of the past week have reduced rugby union to the level of a bad joke is not in dispute. If, in the mellowness of evening, the rapprochement between the Five Nations and England in a Glasgow pub seemed like a good idea, in the cold light of day it was a public relations fiasco.

Not only did the images flashed across the television screens and splashed over the newspapers of three men toasting England's return to the fold perpetuate the public perception of the game's administrators as a bunch of dipsomaniac incompetents, but the sentiment expressed, that the occasion heralded a new beginning for rugby union, was entirely the wrong one. Acknowledge England's 11th-hour decision to come to their senses by all means, but with it comes profound concern that they had placed themselves and the game in such a perilous position in the first place. Regrettably, although no one had worked harder or more conscientiously to secure peace than Allan Hosie, he found himself in the line of fire meant for the RFU.

There were, according to Brian Baister, the chairman of the RFU Management Board, faults on both sides. That is true in the same way that when Hitler was rampaging through Europe, Britain could have been accused of not acting sooner to stop him. England's capitulation last Tuesday was not an occasion for triumphalism, but neither was there the need for the other countries to display humility in victory. Instead of the cringingly contrived bonhomie in the Drum and Monkey, the message should have come across loud and clear that English rugby is being badly served by its leaders.

Baister, the man who handed over the letter of surrender, was the man who a few days previously had urged the RFU council to take the confrontational route. He, together with his chief executive Francis Baron, whose behaviour during this shabby episode has raised serious doubts about his suitability for the job, must, because of their positions, take the brunt of the criticism. But what about the council members, who left their meeting on the Thursday evening thinking that they had empowered their representatives in Dublin the following day, Malcolm Phillips and John Jeavons-Fellows, to place on record England's acceptance of the accord?

If the council were confused it was hardly surprising. The bulk of the meeting that Thursday had been taken up in discussing proposals for the restructuring of the committee system - a charter for the lunatics to increase their influence in the asylum - at the very time when England were about to be blown out of the Five Nations' Championship. Cue Nero with fiddlers and a supermarket trolley.

Some of those responsible for taking England to the brink last week were the very same men who had brought about their expulsion three years ago. They are the same men whose carefully concealed agenda is to bring the Five Nations' Championship to its knees and to abandon it for fresh pastures. Despite the fact that the RFU's unilateral television deal with BSkyB has cost the game in Britain and Ireland the millions of pounds which would have been realised from collective bargaining and has also lost it many more millions of viewers, this vicious skirmish was not about the distribution of television money or whether France were signatories to the agreement or what would happen when Italy joined the party. Red herrings all.

When the accord was signed in 1996 the process for dealing with all these issues was agreed and put in place. It was that same process which was finally accepted by England last week. The true agenda was much more sinister.

There are those within the RFU who did not wish to sign up to a 10-year agreement for the Five/Six Nations' Championship because their interest lay in establishing an alternative five nations alliance involving England, France, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. They hoped that by the time the RFU's agreement with Sky had expired in 2001, the plans would be in place.

The big issue so far as the RFU were concerned, although few of the council would have recognised it, centred on whether England should sign up to a 10-year commitment to Europe or set their sights on a tournament embracing the southern-hemisphere powers.

What the conspirators had not reckoned on, of course, was the rapid deterioration in England's relationships with the rest of the world and whereas six months ago the thought of such a union might have appealed, it is now inconceivable that South Africa, New Zealand and Australia would entertain such an idea. The RFU's subservience to their leading clubs and the baleful influence that those clubs have been exerting over the game both at home and overseas have played a major role in isolating England.

They are alone in their misery. Almost certainly there will be more to come, not only from the International Board, who will deliver their verdict on the RFU later this week but from within their own ranks, where the Reform Group yesterday called for the management board to step down and the pressure for a vote of no-confidence in the leadership is getting stronger.

Those who seek to dismiss the events of the past week and, for that matter, the past couple of years, as a childish spat to be sorted out simply by knocking a few thick heads together are ever so slightly missing the point.

This is not a little local difficulty. The future of rugby is at stake here and although a Glasgow hostelry may not have been the most appropriate setting for reaching a settlement, we should at least be thankful that the Five Nations' Championship appears to have been saved. Unfortunately, recent experience has shown that whatever the RFU stands for, the name can no longer be associated with integrity, decency and honour.