Rugby Union: Vision of peace on the horizon

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The Independent Online
Smoke signals are not yet billowing from the chimneys at Twickenham, but the possibility of peace breaking out at last in English rugby may now no longer be a pipe dream.

Phone calls last week to the offices of the main protagonists in rugby's own version of that perennial sporting soap opera, club v country, met largely with the same response. "He's in a meeting all day," could have been a chorus from a West End musical so often was it heard by correspondents trying to pick up the plot. Indeed there were meetings galore, even as far afield as Portugal, but after nearly a year of internal strife cautiously optimistic noises are being heard from all sides.

Mostly off-the-record noises, though. Following the false dawn of the agreement between the Rugby Football Union and English Professional Rugby Union Clubs four months ago, no one wants to tempt fate with premature celebrations this time. The two sides are due to meet again on Tuesday and, for all concerned, not only is weariness setting in but the realisation is dawning that time is running out.

Next Friday was the deadline nominated by Epruc as their point of no return if they fail to bury the hatchet with the RFU. And next Saturday sees the start of the new European club competition which at present has no television contract after ITV's withdrawal and sponsors, Heineken, who are said to be wavering. The inauspicious start made by the new Anglo- Welsh tournament, in which matches have already been called off because some clubs have struggled to raise a competitive side, is an object lesson in what can happen when the fixture list is overloaded without much centralised planning. The El Dorado of the projected pounds 60m income from the 1999 World Cup, which will be based in Wales, certainly seems a long way off at the moment.

The mood at some clubs, though, is as militant as ever. London Irish are refusing to release players for their provinces and West Hartlepool, whose chairman is Epruc board member Phil Yuill, have voted to support a breakaway if it happens.

Perhaps recognising that everyone could lose out if there is a breakaway, the RFU proffered an olive branch last week with a brief statement of goodwill towards the clubs, proposing a two-year financial agreement and a more structured fixture list. In return, the clubs would release their players for representative duties "to an agreed schedule".

Whether that will translate into the increased cash offer and degree of autonomy over their own competitions which Epruc are seeking will soon be established at the negotiating table.

Last night, Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive and Epruc director, welcomed the RFU's gesture. "We have had some positive noises from the Union and hopefully that will be the picture when we sit down on Tuesday," he said. "I hope we will talk until we come to some conclusion - that's certainly our intention. The deadline was for clubs to be in a position to withdraw if it was felt necessary."

However, the team representing the RFU needs to convince Epruc that they have their organisation's full authority. Back in May, when a truce was announced in the war which in effect broke out after the International Board declared rugby an open game the previous August, it seemed that both sides had got what they wanted.

Entrepreneurs like Sir John Hall (Newcastle), Nigel Wray (Saracens) and Ashley Levett (Richmond) had bought themselves a place at the table, and the RFU apparently acknowledged their right to be there.

But it was not long before Epruc cried foul and accused the RFU of reneging on their commitments. They withdrew their players from England squad training sessions and the RFU found themselves fighting battles on too many fronts. They were under fire from the other home unions and their debenture holders over the original TV deal with BSkyB for the Five Nations' Championship from next season. Their sponsors and backers, from whom they had borrowed pounds 34m to modernise Twickenham, were not too happy either.

The RFU have now settled their differences with Ireland, Scotland and Wales. And it seems likely in the end that they will do the same with the clubs.