Andrew charts a way out of the minefield

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The Independent Online

It is not often that the staid conservatism of the Rugby Football Union Council is invaded by outbursts of passion, but after Rob Andrew, Nigel Melville and Graham Cattermole, the RFU director of finance, had presented their blueprint for the future of English rugby, there was a spontaneous round of applause. Relief as much as appreciation was no doubt the reason for such an uncharacteristic display of emotion. It has been a long and at times a grim journey through the minefield of professionalism but, despite the fact that the Andrew plan was accepted almost without demur, there remains much to be done.

Even from within the council's ranks on Friday there are concerns that too much is being given to the professional game at the expense of the amateur sections. With over £21m haemorrhaging each year from the RFU into the coffers of the 12 franchise clubs, the argument is that there won't be much left to spend on grass-roots development and the restocking of the lower ranks of players, depleted after almost five years of chaos and anarchy. But no plan was ever going to satisfy all parties and after the strife of the past two years, during which time the game not only in England but throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland has been so grievously split, the decision announced on Friday was balm to the soul, not least for the fact that part of it embraced the Celts. This offers another sign that the future of the game in the northern hemisphere lies in cross-border harmony rather than division.

It is to be hoped now that the Irish, who have been so reluctant to join forces with Scotland and Wales, will have a change of heart. Their involvement would greatly enhance not only a Celtic league but also the proposed British Cup. It has been made clear to them, however, that participation in the cup competition will depend upon their participation in the Celtic League. How sad it would be if Ireland were to be isolated from this form of competition.

There is much detail still to be negotiated, and the response of the English First Division Clubs will be made formally later this week. The initial reaction from the Tom Walkinshaw camp was predictable but the coded message from the RFU on Friday could not have been clearer - "take it or leave".

The brutal truth is that the clubs have nowhere else to go. The Walkinshaw plan for an Anglo-Welsh competition floated a couple of weeks ago was even more absurdly unrealistic than his proposals for a British competition. Fablon Investments, the organisation put forward by Walkinshaw to bankroll the venture, failed to turn up to present their credentials to an informal meeting of the clubs and the RFU in the early part of last week. They also failed to show at the RFU management board meeting last Thursday, their excuse being that if the board had already made up its mind to accept the Andrew plan, it would be a waste of their time.

But by then Fablon's credibility was being questioned. The RFU had received no guarantees of their financial stability and they were barely known in the close-knit world of sports sponsorship and marketing. While they did appear to be involved in squash and ice hockey, claims that they were working closely with the England and Wales Cricket Board were untrue.

This is not exactly professional conduct by EFDR, the body which seeks to run the professional game and is forever accusing the RFU of blazered buffoonery and incompetence. One must also question the actions of Brian Baister, the chairman of the RFU management board. By sitting down with the clubs a couple of weeks ago and listening to their proposals he lent tacit support to their initiatives. His chairmanship has been tainted by his perceived association with the club owners and he will face a challenge for his position within the RFU by Cattermole and the forthcoming AGM. Baister was swept to power by the clubs, whose aim at the time was to get rid of Cliff Brittle and take over the running of the game. Following Friday's announcement he has clearly backed the wrong horse.

Nevertheless, there is likely to be a backlash from the clubs supporting Walkinshaw - Northampton, Harlequins and possibly Bedford, whose future may lie in a partnership with another club. But the fact is that Walkinshaw no longer enjoys a majority support within the Premiership and when it comes to the forthcoming dialogue between the sides, the RFU will be negotiating from a position of strength.

It will be argued by some that the position would have been even stronger had the RFU pushed to have the country's top players under contract. There are also concerns about the amount of rugby that the leading players will be required to play, the lack of consultation with the game at large and the unbridgeable gap which has opened up between the professional game and the recreational level.

It is true that the franchise system will in time create a selfperpetuating elite, but already the difference in standards between the professional and the amateur games prevents competitive contact if only on grounds of safety. The Andrew plan is not the answer to all the game's problems. Far from it, but it is at least a start on the road to reparation and ultimately, we must all hope, to salvation.

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