Rugby Union: Top clubs face up to growing rebellion

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ROTHERHAM HAVE been joined by English Second Division Rugby Ltd in their bid to overturn the decision to reduce the size of the First Division of the Allied Dunbar Premiership from 14 clubs to 12.

The support of ESDR is a tremendous boost to the South Yorkshire club who brought the case to the Sheffield High Court yesterday but will have been disappointed that an adjournment was allowed. Their petition will now be heard in London, rather than Sheffield or Leeds.

With the new season due to start for the Second Division clubs on the weekend of 4 September, the potential for widespread disruption was acknowledged by the Rugby Football Union and English First Division Rugby Ltd, two of the parties named in Rotherham's petition. For that reason the club argued that no further delay should be granted. But Mr Justice David Poole - who declared an interest by having been a playing member of London Irish - ruled that EFDR and the RFU had insufficient time to prepare their defence. Moreover, as there were more judges available in London at short notice, the case will be heard in the Chancery Division of the High Court as soon after 10 August as possible, and a maximum of five days will be allowed to hear it.

Rotherham's argument is based on their belief that by trimming the top division by two, following the merger of London Scottish and Richmond with London Irish, EFDR are in breach of the Leicester Agreement of 1997, and the Mayfair Agreement of last year which amended it. In defending Rotherham's plaint, EFDR were joined by the RFU and English Rugby Partnership Ltd, the umbrella organisation of the clubs in the top two divisions. By aligning themselves with Rotherham, ESDR are now in open conflict with ERP.

Richard Greenwood, a former captain of England and now the chairman of ESDR, said: "There has been no discussion with EFDR and they have never proposed any variance to Mayfair. Instead they have ignored it. Either the Leicester and Mayfair Agreements were just a bit of window dressing or - as we in the Second Division have always understood - they are legally binding. We need to find out."

For Mike Yarlett, the senior member of the Rotherham board and their biggest benefactor, the case has several implications, not the least of which is the six-figure sum he stands to lose should Rotherham fail. "This isn't about money," said Yarlett. "It's about the way we have been treated. EFDR and the RFU have ridden roughshod over the clubs in the Second Division. One of us had to make a stand, and it's fallen to me. I'm determined to see this to a fair conclusion."

Howard Thomas, the chief executive of EFDR, was not in court but was present at a meeting of ESDR in February when the question of division sizes for the next season was raised. Thomas's answer was unequivocal: "There will be 14 in each".