Rugby Union: Welsh and Scots pick up gauntlet

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The prospect has emerged of a new Five Nations' Championship rising from the ashes of the Rugby Football Union's declining relationship with England's leading clubs. After a week in which the rift between the RFU and English Professional Rugby Union Clubs widened, a further breakdown of official control is now threatened in both Wales and Scotland. Senior clubs in Wales are considering their position despite being offered pounds 300,000 each from the Welsh Rugby Union while Sir John Hall, the owner of Newcastle and one of Epruc's leading lights, is expected to meet players and club representatives in Scotland today.

High on the agenda, no doubt, will be an explanation as to why all but one of England's 43-strong international squad have thrown in their lot with their employers and rejected the RFU's latest terms of pounds 70,000 a man.

But non-English players have also been involved. "They are asking the exile players for their support and are offering to reimburse us for our backing. The decision is basically down to us," said Gareth Llewellyn, the Welsh lock who now plays for Harlequins. "I'm still dead keen to play for Wales but there are a lot of things to consider."

The Epruc chairman Donald Kerr has promised "alternative, meaningful international rugby when we break away". And Mike Smith, the chief executive of Saracens and an Epruc director, said: "The ball is in the RFU's court, where it's been since May, but we seem to be dealing with a different guy every time we talk to them. The RFU can't guarantee a player's livelihood - he can be dropped by England after just one game and then where would he be? At least the clubs are paying his wages and can guarantee him regular rugby. The white shirt of England may have been the be-all and end-all before professionalism. It's still important, of course, but things are a bit different now."

Ironically, both Smith and Tony Hallett, the secretary of the RFU, were optimistic that the two sides would meet this week. Hallett said: "I still think both sides want to sort this out as a matter of serious urgency. The RFU is united internally and the senior officers do all speak with the same voice." But he brushed aside yesterday's newspaper leak of an internal RFU memo about how to handle the England players, saying: "We simply wanted to devise a way of keeping the players out of all the politics. What could be wrong with that?"

Jack Rowell, the England coach, remains optimistic that a settlement can be reached. "My view, and the message from the clubs and players, is that they want to play for England," he said. "I don't think there will be any ultimatum [from England] and I don't believe there will be two England teams. I don't see much point in players on the field unless they are the best. You just lose credibility."

Chris Rea, page 24

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