Rugby Union:RFU call for emergency summit

Chris Rea finds a national crisis is now a case for international rescue; Twickenham turns to world body to break deadlock in fight for control of the game as England bank on fresh approach
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The Independent Online
Fasten your seat belts and prepare for a crash landing. In the next few days one of two things is likely to happen. Either there will be an explosion within the Rugby Football Union or an implosion within English Professional Rugby Union Clubs.

Something has to give and were I a betting man my money would be on it being Epruc, despite their persistent triumphalism and their relentless vilification of the chairman of the RFU's executive committee, Cliff Brittle. How anyone can seriously believe that this wretched business comes down to the intransigence of one man is beyond my comprehension.

Mind you, the representatives of the dozen or so clubs who attended last week's meeting, some of them with a mandate to support the RFU, must search deeply into their consciences. Had they followed the wishes of their members, the battle would, in all probability, have been won and lost, and the war would now be over. As it is they somehow allowed themselves to be bullied into changing their minds, and they have muddied the waters still further by their weakness.

Still, it is not too late. The ball is very firmly back in their court and should they decide to reunite behind the RFU and pick up a few more converts, then the RFU may well feel strong enough to abandon the renegade clubs to their fate. It might mean a strange-looking England side taking the field at Twickenham but not, I suspect, for long. Phil de Glanville, the winner of the lottery ticket two weeks ago but mugged on his way to cash it in last week, would quickly realise - along with his international comrades - that without international rugby the game in Britain is nothing.

For the record, when the RFU negotiating team arrived at Northampton on Thursday there were just four points still to be agreed. Of those, the RFU were able to give the clubs comfort on three but on the fourth the ultimate approval of decisions by the committee of the proposed new body to run the game, they stood firm. Following discussions on the four points, the clubs, who had earlier rejected Epruc's document, came back to the table demanding an answer on no fewer than 21 items. Now it may be that inflation has risen slightly over the past few days, but this is ridiculous. It was at that point that Epruc's representatives went into their assiduously rehearsed campaign to discredit and embarrass Brittle and the meeting turned nasty.

I believe, however, that they have picked on the wrong man. Were Brittle and his team to give way now it is not just English rugby that would suffer but the game world-wide. What Epruc wants is control. They do not wish to be held accountable to anyone and that includes the International Board, the world governing body. They are contemptuous of Regulation Eight, which places the onus on the clubs to release their players for international matches. That is why I understand that the RFU are asking the IB to convene an emergency meeting, which has been scheduled for early next week. The RFU hope the IB will strengthen their stand on the release of players for internationals and bring more pressure on the clubs to settle.

Furthermore, the clubs want complete control of the players to the extent that they are demanding that the RFU pay international players' wages to Epruc, who would then distribute that money to the players. We have already seen the hypocrisy of Sir John Hall, who one week was threatening to take the RFU to the European Court on the grounds of restraint of trade and the next was refusing to release the Newcastle players for international matches in Scotland and Ireland. If that is not restraint of trade, then I'd like to know what is.

As it is we are not quite certain yet, despite Epruc's assurances, whether England will line up against Italy at Twickenham on Saturday as per programme. If they do it will still be under that festering cloud of uncertainty which is blighting the game.

On the pitch the fascination will be de Glanville's impact on the players and on England's strategy. There were times last season when one was tempted to ask `what strategy?' as England consistently promised one style but delivered another.

This was reflected in the fact that Paul Grayson scored 64 of their 79 points in the Five Nations' Championship. It was effective enough in its limited way but it made few friends, the sound of silence at Twickenham being broken on more than one occasion by the jeering of an impatient crowd. This was not Grayson's fault any more than his omission from Saturday's game can be attributed to poor form this season.

In last week's epic contest against Bath at Northampton, he finished ahead of Mike Catt not only in points but also in technique. But by selecting Catt, the England coach Jack Rowell must be taking the view that England will be scoring more tries than they will be kicking goals. Either way the responsibility for it all will rest on Catt's shoulders, and for one man that is a mighty heavy burden.