Rugby Union: The uncivil sides of a civil war

Tim Glover unravels the political web as the conflict in union overheats
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The Independent Online
IT HAS been a particularly good week for Keith Barwell, the owner of Northampton. First his club knock Newcastle out of the Tetley's Bitter Cup and then he sells a company, Firm Security, for pounds 22m. "I'm having a bit of a battle with people like Fran Cotton," Barwell says, "and it's comforting to know that he's overdrawn and I've got pounds 22m in the bank."

There's nothing bloodier than a civil war and in the confrontation between England's leading clubs and the Rugby Football Union, bayonets have been fixed.

The players, who are caught in no man's land, understand what the battle is about: control of the professional game. On Monday Barwell, representing the roundheads, announces that Northampton would not release such players as Paul Grayson, Tim Rodber and Matt Dawson for England's summer tour of the southern hemisphere. He wants them fresh for club, not knackered by country. "The guy who pays the piper calls the tune," Barwell says. "We owners put pounds 35m into the game last season and while Fran thinks he can tell us what to do, he'll shortly find out that he can't. Like in any game of rugby, we need a bloody good punch up to sort it out."

Cotton, leading the cavaliers' cavalry, responds: "I have always got on with Keith, although he can be a volatile character. He keeps suggesting it's a contest between me and him which is totally ridiculous. Owners should not issue threats to players and order them not to tour. It's a complete scam, used to escalate the tension between the sides. Nobody ever wins in a row between club and country. There is no place for people who would deny young players the chance of fulfilling a dream of playing for the national side. To have owners saying who plays and when is unacceptable. The country comes first. The day that changes is the day the game dies."

Clive Woodward, the England coach who is in the Barwell class of volatility, is restrained. "England will tour with 36 players," he says. "I'm glad the clubs didn't make these comments last year because there wouldn't have been a Lions tour."

On Monday, Rodber says: "I would like to go on tour if selected." On Tuesday, the Saints captain says: "Keith is our boss and we can't disregard the man who pays our salary. He is looking after his employees in the interest of Northampton. We have signed a contract with the club."

Cotton points out that the contracts, agreed with the English Rugby Partnership, the joint body for the RFU and the clubs,contain release clauses for the national cause. "The clubs will be in breach of every regulation," he says.

Lawrence Dallaglio, captain of Wasps and England, says: "It's for the player to decide whether or not he plays for his country and I don't want anyone making that decision on my behalf. It's a fantastic honour achieved through an individual's endeavour. I entered into an agreement with the RFU on the understanding that the clubs were happy with it, and that agreement says we are available to tour." Mike Smith, the Saracens chief executive, describes the RFU contracts as legally unsound. "The players were forced to sign them because they received a letter telling them that if they didn't they wouldn't be picked for England."

On Wednesday, at an England training session at Bisham Abbey, Woodward, who admits England will not win the World Cup unless players get longer breaks, is unrestrained. According to Rodber, Woodward tells the squad to be available to tour - they have until tomorrow to think about it - or miss the rest of the Five Nations' Championship.

Barwell, relying on his Saints at the Abbey for feedback, says: "The players went to a training session but they didn't do any training. Woodward told them that if they aren't committed and available between now and the World Cup they wouldn't be considered and he'd rather play a Pisspot United against Scotland."

Meanwhile, over at Twickenham, Cliff Brittle, chairman of the RFU's management board, attempts to outflank the roundheads, announcing radical changes to the European Cup, designed to persuade the clubs to change their minds about a boycott. This season the owners, who will lose millions, were frustrated to the point of apoplexy by six weeks of European competition while the Premiership went into storage. The RFU propose a mix and Cotton says: "I hope this proves to the clubs that we are working for them even in their absence."

Over in Australia, Barwell's threat to spoil the England party is criticised as the "ugly face of private ownership".

On Thursday it is revealed that Dallaglio is being offered a five-year contract by the RFU worth pounds 1m. The romantic view is that the deal is brokered on Dallaglio's houseboat, Bardot, which is moored on the Thames at Twickenham. Simultaneously the RFU explores the possibility of signing rugby league players, Gary Connolly of Wigan for example.

Before a meeting of the clubs in London on Friday, Barwell, who describes Woodward and Cotton as amateurs, says: "It's time to put up or shut up." At the meeting the clubs "fully support" the action taken by Barwell and announce they are consulting players about the veto on England's tour, which is described as a "punishing schedule" following a "gruelling season." They demand that Woodward should withdraw his "provocative ultimatum" to the players.

Cotton says: "We haven't suddenly come up with this tour. The way the first division is carrying on means they will be totally isolated. We have 2,000 clubs, they've got 12." Asked where all this will end, Cotton replies: "In court."

On Tuesday, Cotton has talks with the second division clubs. He has invited the Premiership to attend, but will not be surprised if they send him to Coventry, which is where the meeting will be held.