Rugby Union: Time to tackle menace of the Brit pack

Click to follow
The Independent Online
EVERY WEEK there is another harebrained scheme from the crackpot organisation that is English First Division Rugby. The latest is the proposal, sponsored by Tom Walkinshaw and Keith Barwell, the owners of Gloucester and Northampton respectively, for a British league.

It is the most ludicrous plan yet and it is difficult to believe that the majority of their colleagues on EFDR have fully bought into it. They are being asked to take a massive leap of faith into the unknown. No sponsors have been revealed and a television company has yet to be confirmed, although it is thought that Sky would be the likely broadcast partners. The competition would be controlled by a small group of club owners and the players would be contracted to the broadcasters.

It would be difficult to devise a more disastrous scenario. The rewards for the Scottish and Welsh sides are not yet clear, but that is hardly surprising given that this entire plot has been hatched without so much as a "by your leave" to the Scottish Rugby Union and the Welsh Rugby Union, whose participation in this enterprise is presumably quite important to its existence.

The time has surely come for this nonsense to stop. Last week the Rugby Football Union issued an admirably unequivocal statement regarding the British league, making it crystal clear that no decisions would be taken on the structure of the game until the New Year, by which time Rob Andrew's working party into the structure of the game will have reported back.

This message should have penetrated even the thickest of EFDR's skins and must have come as something of a shock to those members who were under the impression that the Walkinshaw plan had received the backing of the unions. But this was never the case, a fact which should enliven proceedings at tomorrow's meeting of the clubs, which has been called by Walkinshaw.

While those clubs who have kept their distance from the reactionaries are far from blameless for their present plight, there has to be a degree of sympathy for them. Despite the agreed salary cap and the promise of increased revenue from their participation in Europe, the Premiership clubs are still likely to be running at a loss.The prospect of an instant solution to their financial problems, short-term though it may be and unauthorised by any of the governing bodies, has obvious attractions.

It is, however, doomed to failure. Quite apart from anything else a British league makes no commercial sense. Why on earth should a property containing half a dozen sides from Scotland and Wales be any more valuable than the Allied Dunbar Premiership and why should it be so much more appealing to English spectators?

Furthermore, the establishment of a British league would undoubtedly dilute the European Cup, a fact of which the present sponsors Heineken were all too well aware, hence their reluctance to sign the present agreement until they had received assurances that there would be no changes to the existing structure.

On top of that, under the Walkinshaw plan, the top players could be playing as many as 45 matches per season, which is unacceptable. No, this scheme for a British league is purely a device for a select few owners to seize control and to grab a return on their investment, and for Sky to maintain its broadcasting monopoly in England.

The majority opinion within the RFU is that a British league is a non- starter and it is probable that the majority of English clubs share that view. Perhaps now is a good time for the two groups to sit down in an atmosphere of reconciliation, but before that the more temperate elements within EFDR will have to rid themselves of the hawks who have led them down ruinous paths.

The Celts, meanwhile, will have to look after themselves, and there is no reason why they shouldn't make a thoroughly decent job of it. Scotland are the Five Nations' champions, Ulster are the European champions and there is a resurgence of interest in the game in Wales. I have consistently argued that a Celtic league is a marketable product providing quality competition for four Welsh clubs, four Irish provinces and two or even four Scottish districts. Running alongside the Allied Dunbar Premiership there could be a play-off between the top four sides in each league to determine the champions of Britain and Ireland. Within a sensibly structured season, Europe would then be the bridging competition between club and international rugby and would inject the variety so essential to any domestic competition.

If I appear to have missed out on the brown paper packages anonymously sent in recent weeks to selected correspondents, containing material aimed at discrediting prominent figures within the game, I do seem to be flavour of the month with the book publishers.

The Christmas offerings have been arriving thick and fast, the pick so far being The Complete Book of the World Cup, edited by Ian Robertson, whose genius - and here I must declare a long and close friendship with the man - lies not in his ability as an author, because he appears not to have written a single word himself, but in his skill at persuading others to do the dirty work for him and in cajoling sponsors to underwrite the enterprise. The result is a mightily entertaining and valuable account of the tournament, beautifully illustrated and produced in a remarkably short time.

Geoff Cooke interview, page 16