Rugby Union: Unions in a rush to discuss windfall

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THE PIN-STRIPED committee types who govern rugby in Britain and Ireland are not exactly renowned for the speed with which they cut through the red tape and make things happen, but it is amazing how quickly they swing into action when there is a Lomu-sized windfall of anything between pounds 250m and pounds 400m on offer. Representatives of the four home unions - England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - agreed to meet in London this evening to discuss the securitisation plan proposed by Dr Tony O'Reilly at a Six Nations Committee gathering in Rome over the weekend.

O'Reilly, the former Ireland and Lions wing and chairman of Independent News and Media, publishers of The Independent, put forward a plan under which the unions would raise unprecedented amounts of urgently needed cash through a bond issue based on future revenue from advertising, marketing, sponsorship and the sale of Six Nations broadcasting rights, which come up for auction in 2002. His initiative was greeted with unequivocal enthusiasm by a number of leading figures - notably the Six Nations chairman, Allan Hosie, and the Club England chairman, Fran Cotton - and with more guarded but generally positive responses from club owners and players.

Tonight, the investment bankers Warburg Dillon Read are making an initial presentation to a high-powered collection of committee types, including the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, Francis Baron, who was more cautious than most when news of the proposed bond issue broke. "It's not a Christmas gift, so it needs careful consideration," he said yesterday. "City people are hard-nosed businessmen and they'll want a return on their investment. I can see difficulties in selling forward all rights for a lump sum today. Mess it up, and we're bust."

However, Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens and a member of the Rob Andrew working party that last week proposed a strengthening of the Allied Dunbar Premiership and a root-and-branch re-structuring of the northern hemisphere fixture list, was hopeful that the leading English clubs could work alongside a newly-affluent RFU to the benefit of all. "There could be a hidden agenda in this, but hopefully the clubs and the union have gone past all of that," he said. "We've both been working on plans for the future and we've been moving in the same direction. It's important to remember that the Six Nations are not magicking a lot of new money - the cash was coming anyway. It's just a way of making it available at once. It should work, because there are a lot of good guys involved.

Meanwhile, Hosie suggested that the procedural work could be completed as early as the end of January. "This has got a lot to offer," he said. "The sport has suffered from too many negatives, negatives that have torn us apart. It's about time we turned a leaf and got on with the job." To do that, the movers and shakers will have to come up with a properly structured domestic season that will satisfy the leading clubs and their commercial aspirations. For once, the English clubs will not be the major stumbling block. It is the Welsh clubs, notably Cardiff, who will kick hardest against any move to spike plans to form a British League and substitute a Celtic version involving the four Irish provinces and the two Scottish "super- clubs". Peter Thomas, the Cardiff owner, suggested at the weekend that he might walk away from the sport if his club were not granted regular fixtures against commercially attractive opposition from the other side of the Severn Bridge.

Still in Wales, Swansea reacted with considerable hostility yesterday to a European Rugby Cup board decree that they should play their postponed Heineken Cup match with Bath on 11 January rather than a week and a half later. The two clubs agreed on a 22 January date after Sunday's match was called off because of a snow-covered Recreation Ground pitch, but ERC decided differently, leaving both sides contemplating the prospect of three demanding Heineken Cup games in eight days.