English rugby has been here before, but this time the end game is clearly under way. The Rugby Football Union council yesterday endorsed as policy Rob Andrew's 32-page blueprint for a new structured season, and while officials went out of their way to hold out the hand of friendship to England's professional clubs, the underlying message was clearly of the "take it or leave it" variety.
The question now is whether the clubs, wooed by an alternative British League proposal put forward by the Gloucester owner, Tom Walkinshaw, decide to buy into Andrew's vision of the future, a future that appears to have an awful lot going for it.
"We're keen to meet the clubs as soon as possible in a spirit of openness and co-operation," said Brian Baister, the chairman of the RFU management board. "We want to find an immediate way forward."
For all their talk of openness and co-operation, the RFU is determined to draw a final line under four years of internecine strife. Andrew, once the Robespierre figure in English rugby's professional revolution, has reinvented himself as a diplomat par excellence. His structure is entirely pro-club - there is no mention of divisional championships or "second tiers" - and guarantees each Premiership outfit an underwritten minimum of £1.8 million a year for five seasons. The economic incentives are strong.
Of course, the hawks among a disunited club movement - Gloucester, Northampton, Harlequins and Saracens - will kick up a fuss. They will accuse the RFU council of adopting Andrew's proposal without giving full consideration to the Walkinshaw alternative, and they will be suspicious of the make-up of the commission set up to manage the elite end of the sport. But seven clubs, including powers such as Bath and Leicester, met an RFU delegation this week and signalled their support for the union position.
Andrew's plan is based on a franchised 12-team Premiership, although franchises will not be introduced before the 2001-2002 campaign. The Premiership will follow a traditional league format, with the addition of a play-off designed to produce a grand final climax to the domestic season. Play-off rankings will determine entry into the following season's European competitions.
An early-season, midweek British Cup pitting the English contingent against 12 teams from the Celtic block will replace the existing Tetley's Bitter Cup, and is likely to be introduced as early as this August. All 12 Premiership sides will play in Europe, half of them in the Heineken Cup, the others in a newly packaged European Challenge Cup. There will also be a season pipe-opener called the British Challenge Shield between the English and Celtic champions. As things stand, this would be between the Premiership and Welsh-Scottish League champions, although the Irish may enter the equation in the future.
Both Andrew and Fran Cotton, the chairman of Club England and a major contributor to the blueprint, know that the franchise arrangements pose a serious threat to harmony. The proposed minimum standards for Premiership venues demand a capacity of at least 10,000, with seating for 4,000 and covered accommodation for 7,000. Many leading clubs, most notably Bath, play at grounds that fall below these standards.
Cotton acknowledged that the franchise system would require some hard bargaining. However, the RFU wants its new competition structures to be accepted without further ado. The ball is now firmly in the clubs' court.
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