Rugby Union: 'Unconstitutional' suspension of clubs leads to confusion

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The Independent Online
VERNON PUGH and Rob Fisher, two of the four International Rugby Board big wheels who earlier this week cast England's leading Premiership clubs into temporary exile, come from legal backgrounds. All the more peculiar, then, that they should have acted outside the strict terms and conditions of their own organisation's constitution.

Pugh, a barrister and Crown Court recorder as well as the current chairman of the IRB, was instrumental in issuing the threat of impending disciplinary action against the Rugby Football Union, whose four-man negotiating panel has completed peace talks with representatives of English First Division Rugby, the clubs' umbrella organisation.

Pugh has been angered and alarmed by the clubs' impertinent decision to challenge some of the more draconian board regulations in an application to the European Commission, which will be heard in October.

Fisher, a New Zealand lawyer, and two fellow executive members, Tom Kiernan of Ireland and Dick McGruther of Australia, were also involved in the ad hoc discussion that resulted in Tuesday's provocative statement. The four men announced that all 82 of the IRB's member unions, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, had been told to suspend playing contact with the EFDR clubs with immediate effect.

Yet the board's own constitution clearly states under regulation three (pithily subtitled "Compliance with regulations and procedures in respect of breaches") that the IRB must give a union "proper opportunity to make representations to the council" before disciplining the union's clubs. The RFU will not get that opportunity until 18 May, when it attends a special meeting in Dublin.

Senior club activists suspect Pugh and company of sabre rattling in an effort to undermine the RFU-EFDR negotiations, the fruits of which will be discussed by the union's management board next week.

If the agreement is ratified, the IRB will find itself in the intriguing position of throwing the book at Twickenham officials for their role in ending an internal conflict that has ravaged English rugby for more than two years.

It was by no means clear yesterday whether the action taken against the EFDR clubs would affect the Sanyo Cup showpiece, which is scheduled for 23 May and involves a big-name invitation side from every corner of the rugby world taking on the winners of the Allied Dunbar Premiership.

Neither was there an official line on where the ban might leave this summer's southern hemisphere tours. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are all on the road over the next two months and will rely on players from the EFDR clubs.

It was left to Gareth Davies, the chief executive of a Cardiff club in deep dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union, to lead the attack on the IRB initiative yesterday. "Why pick on England?" he asked. "We should look a bit nearer home. Professional rugby in Wales is a complete disaster, a total shambles.

"England's problems are more complex than ours, but look at what they've achieved already. As an outsider, I would say that England and the clubs are doing all right."