Rugby Union: Vain wait for International rescue

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WHEN Tony Blair directed his "lunatics running the asylum" remark at the opposition front bench, he could just as easily have been aiming it at the leadership of rugby union. The events in Dublin on Thursday and Friday did a great disservice to a game which seems hell- bent on total self-destruction. If ever there was a time to present a united front to a public increasingly sceptical about the game's ability to survive this was it. Instead of that, the Welsh are in deeper turmoil with their two leading clubs and the English are preparing to slug it out in the courts against the rest of the world.

The Rugby Football Union's self-righteous indignation in the aftermath of the meetings which it considered unconstitutional and partial would be easier to accept had it behaved in a manner befitting a responsible and authoritative governing body. But it has not. Indeed the ultimate lunacy last week was the appearance of the RFU, with its expensive legal counsel hired to defend it against the International Rugby Board, which, in turn, is helping to defend the RFU in the action being taken against it by its top clubs.

Confused? Of course you are, because nothing in the mad, mad world of sport today is crazier than this. Put in the simplest of terms, the RFU is footing the bill for its clubs to usurp it and take over the running of the game. It is this control which the IRB is fighting tooth and nail to hold on to. This is what the meeting in Dublin was about and the fact that the relatively minor, although not unconnected, issue of the cross- border contact between England's Premiership One clubs and Cardiff and Swansea has made the headlines, has seriously weakened the IRB's case.

The fact, too, that it allowed Francis Baron, the RFU's new chief executive and England representative in Dublin, to get his retaliation in first was a grave tactical blunder. Not a peep out of the IRB after a meeting of this importance is a public relations gaffe of major proportions and any moral high ground it might have claimed has been well and truly surrendered. The pounds 60,000 fine imposed on the RFU over the Anglo-Welsh matches looks like the rash act of an incompetent guardian.

Baron's assertion before the meeting that the evidence against it was flimsy was hardly supported by the facts, but his stance given his short time in office and his unwillingness to shoot through his employer's goal on what, to all intents and purposes was his debut match, was understandable. There was and still is a substantial case to answer, however.

The RFU is a member of the global rugby club that is the IRB. Membership of it confers massive benefits and imposes equally large responsibilities, one of them being to abide by the club's rules and regulations. It is not possible to be selective on which rules to accept and which to reject. This, for better or worse, is democracy and if you don't like it you can either lump it or get out of it. The RFU's authority, its regulations and its right as the game's governing body in England to control the game on its own patch, have all been challenged by the clubs' submission to the European Commission and all are at risk. By its inability or unwillingness to curb the clubs and by its failure to respond robustly to the European challenge, the RFU has placed itself in a vulnerable position and has also jeopardised the stability of the game world-wide.

That is why England was on the carpet in Dublin and the fact that the entire operation appears to have been a farcical botch-up cannot conceal the underlying truth that, should the English clubs succeed in their quest through the European courts, there will be full-blown anarchy.

There is, of course, a reasonable chance that the Commission will find in the Union's favour in which case many of the club owners will throw in their expensively monogrammed towels. But that is far from being a certainty and in the meantime the game at large should be taking all possible steps to protect itself.

This the RFU has failed to do and following the Dublin fiasco it would appear to be closer than ever to its clubs, thereby restoring some measure of credibility to a group which was as quickly running out of support as it is of money. Its continuing refusal to re-enter the European Cup despite the mind-bogglingly generous offer of financial reward made to it by ERC last week was yet more evidence of its consuming desire to run everything for and by itself.

The same is true of its half-baked proposal for a British League of two ill-matched conferences. In the background there still lurks the possibility of an alliance between the leading eight clubs of England and France, along with Cardiff and Swansea, who now appear to be inextricably joined at the hip with the English Premiership.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to see a way out of the mess which the game has created for itself. We have seen all too clearly in recent days and in another sport the appalling consequences of incompetent leadership which should stand as the starkest of warnings to rugby union.