Rugby Union: Wait for weight of the world

Chris Rea warns that international opinion is going to take a hand in the internal row
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WHO says the Rugby Football Union are out of touch? They have hit exactly the right note for Easter by enacting their very own passion play. Last weekend there was the craven betrayal of Cliff Brittle and Fran Cotton, followed some days later by the resurrection of both.

There are now two battles raging - Brittle, Cotton and Clive Woodward against the leading English clubs and the English clubs against the world. Where the RFU stand in all this has still to be ascertained. Their silence so far has been deafening.

It has been another traumatic week for Brittle, as he and Cotton have been abandoned by all but their most loyal supporters. Predictably, the media, by and large, have come down on the side of the clubs. But that is unimportant. The views of the media are as irrelevant as the meetings now being held between the RFU and the clubs to find a settlement.

What really matters is the reaction of the international rugby community to the clubs' application to the European Commission, challenging the legitimacy of the regulations of the International Rugby Board and the RFU.

When Cotton claimed that England's participation in the World Cup is in jeopardy if the RFU cannot or, as seems more likely, will not curb the clubs' ambitions, he had documentary evidence to prove it. Letters promising sanctions against England, including expulsion from the World Cup, have been sent from all the major unions in the world.

The IRB have already expressed concern at certain parts of the Leicester Agreement, upon which the English Rugby Partnership was established, so there is bound to be outrage at this latest attempt by the clubs to gain mastery over the game.

The IRB's response, which is imminent, will be critical because unless they give unequivocal support to Brittle and Cotton both in word and, if necessary, in deed, then it will be much harder for the two men to convince the rest of the game in England of the validity of their case. It is likely, however, that the full force of the IRB's fury will be directed not only at the English clubs, but at those members of the RFU Council who have encouraged and even engineered this sorry mess.

Vernon Pugh, the chairman of the IRB, has said that any union negotiating independently with their clubs in breach of IRB regulations faces expulsion from the Board. Yet John Jeavons- Fellows, one of England's representatives on the IRB, is thought to be a leading figure behind the removal of Brittle from the RFU's negotiating team. Malcolm Phillips, England's other representative on the Board, is a member of the team and will likely be negotiating a deal which in a number of areas could well infringe IRB regulations. Never mind that he will be sitting at the same table with Stephen Hornsby, the solicitor who helped draft the clubs' submission to the European Commission and the legal adviser to Sir John Hall. Forget, too, that the contest between the negotiating teams will be as one-sided as last week's rout at Wembley. The fact is that the RFU are snuggling up to the body which intends taking them to court unless they capitulate and accede to their demands.

What a sham, and what mindblowing naivety on the part of the RFU.

According to Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens, the cost of this action is in excess of pounds 1m. So where is the money coming from? The combined debts of the clubs during the first two years of professionalism are in the region of pounds 30m. The very scale of that financial burden should convince the most hardened apologist for the clubs that they are not in this merely to gain control over their own affairs. Their financial needs stretch far beyond that. One only has to look at the battles at present being fought by the ailing Rugby League and by the England and Wales Cricket Board to realise what England's rugby future would be like if the clubs' demands are met.

Much now depends upon the IRB and the rugby yeomanry of England, who will have the opportunity to make up their own minds in the next three weeks when Brittle and Cotton take their rugby horror show on the road to Twickenham (19 April), Taunton (20 April), Huddersfield (23 April), and Rugby (26 April).

Woodward has made his own position perfectly clear. Outside the political arena he has every reason to reflect on the season with a measure of satisfaction, although it must be tempered by the knowledge that of the five matches against the best sides in the world, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and France, England won none. In addition, the opposition provided by the Celtic nations was at an all-time low and, in the case of Wales, pitiful.

Despite their victories over Scotland and Ireland, Wales appear to be the most impoverished of the three. Their few small comforts come from a scrummage which held up surprisingly well against France, although this surely reinforces the doubts about the French pack's ability to withstand the power of the likes of the Springboks, and three backs of genuine quality - Robert Howley, Allan Bateman and Kevin Morgan. The alignment of the Welsh threequarters against France was calamitous and allowed opponents, markedly superior in all respects, the total freedom of the field.

Given this latitude, the French played the 15-a-side game as if it were sevens, rendering analysis of their true worth almost meaningless. Their policy of playing five No 8s in the scrum has worked in this series, just as it did for Scotland in the mid-1980s. But in the real world of international rugby it could be seriously exposed. Nevertheless it is a daunting thought that they still have Philippe Benetton and Abdel Benazzi in the wings.

England, too, will have to beef up their pack. It is very doubtful if their front row are good enough for the World Cup and Tony Diprose, fine player though he is in certain situations, lacks the abrasive cutting edge going forward which is so vital for the modern No 8. Elsewhere, Woodward has the opportunity to build on his very positive achievements.

Neil Back, after what seems like an eternity in the wilderness, has finally reached journey's end, and the harmony of Will Greenwood and Jeremy Guscott in the centre against Ireland was a delight. Matt Perry continues to make progress and with a summer of polishing and refining could reach the World Cup as the finished article. Always assuming of course that England are welcome guests at that particular feast.