Rugby union: Welsh compromise closer

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IT IS probably foolishly impetuous to assume it, but there appeared to be signs yesterday of a softening of attitudes on both sides of the vast Rugby Divide which separates the leading English clubs and their governing body.

Admittedly, only one of the tangles was being focused on, the tricky matter of friendly fixtures against the two disaffected Welsh clubs, Cardiff and Swansea, but it was a start.

The Rugby Football Union has viewed, with mounting suspicion, the intention by the 14 Premiership clubs to play the two pariahs on a home and away basis on free Saturdays and Sundays. It was felt at Twickenham that this was a sinister move by the clubs to hi-jack the English league and incorporate the Welsh sides in an alternative Allied Dunbar Premiership.

And yesterday Brian Baister, the RFU chairman, warned that friendly fixtures incorporating a home and away structure could lead to England being thrown out of the World Cup next year. "I hope that common sense prevails," Baister said in an interview on Radio Five Live. "We have no objection to the hand of friendship being extended to Swansea and Cardiff, but we cannot allow a shadow Allied Dunbar Premiership to be created by their inclusion when they are in breach of the Welsh Rugby Union's regulations."

Instead Baister has called on the clubs to accept a compromise. He wants the clubs to play their Anglo-Welsh friendlies in midweek, and to turn the games into one-off matches, to obviate any suggestion or impression that there is any officially sanctioned competition within the existing structure.

Staggeringly, the clubs were last night making conciliatory noises themselves. Tony Hallett, former secretary of the RFU but now chief executive of Richmond, said: "We may have to move to midweek, although we at Richmond would prefer not to, because we have a large Welsh playing contingent and we could attract a very good crowd at our new stadium in Reading if we played Cardiff and Swansea on a Saturday or a Sunday. It would make commercial sense for us, but I am sure there are some clubs who would be happy to play their friendlies on a Tuesday or a Wednesday.

"We have told the RFU we are prepared to be flexible. We are not insisting on anything hard and fast and I would say that this is something of a breakthrough. I am very optimistic." And Hallett stressed the absence of hidden agendas in the playing of the friendlies. "We do not regard these as a part of the Allied Dunbar Premiership," he said. "No one wants these fixtures to devalue that, or spoil the good relationship with the RFU. It is just that we made a commitment to play Cardiff and Swansea if they were unable to take part in Welsh domestic competitions."

There are reports that up to half a dozen English clubs are reluctant to play the friendlies, although Hallett denied that there had been a vote when the 14 met last week to discuss the issue. But Richard Hill, Gloucester's director of rugby, has been reported as saying that he does not like the idea of friendlies.

Hill is reported to have said: "Unless they [the Welsh clubs] come into a proper Anglo-Welsh league, I don't think it will work. Clubs will not put out their full teams. If the matches are meaningless, then neither the players nor the spectators will be interested." There is certainly no evidence that the players and spectators are interested in the continued wrangling between clubs and unions, so it is to be hoped that Hallett's optimism is well-founded and the season can begin in an orderly fashion on 5 September.

n Argentina have qualified for next year's World Cup, along with Canada and the United States, after winning the Pan-American tournament.