Baron meets clubs to resolve 10-year conflict

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The Independent Online

Francis Baron, the embattled chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, suffered the agonies of hell during England's diabolical autumn campaign. He did not suffer quite so horribly as Andy Robinson - Baron is still in a job, after all - but November was a month he could well have done without. As a result of those events, the next six months will go a long way towards deciding whether the man charged with running one of the biggest businesses in British sport will make it to the end of 2007.

Today, Baron and his colleagues, the RFU chairman, Martyn Thomas, and the elite rugby director, Rob Andrew, will meet representatives of the Guinness Premiership clubs to launch the most far-reaching review ever undertaken in the union game. By June, after dozens of meetings about meetings, Baron is confident the two sides in the 10-year-old conflict between club and country will have reached agreement on a legal, administrative and competitive structure that will take English rugby out of the swamp and on to the sunlit uplands.

"If we hit the jackpot," Baron said, "we would want to see the new arrangements in place as soon as possible. The existing Long Form Agreement could be replaced before its termination date in 2009. The issues are complex, difficult and emotive. No one has the monopoly on wisdom here - if someone had that monopoly, the problems we face would have been solved years ago. What I want to make clear is that we intend to carry everyone with us. What encourages me is that both sides, the union and Premier Rugby, have been very frank and open in recent discussions. I think we understand the need to put old arguments behind us and move to new ground."

All very optimistic, but this review process is heading down a rocky road. The problem with blank sheets of paper and "blue skies thinking" is that the vaguest of ideas can too easily be presented as a firm proposal - or even, as happened at the weekend with extraordinary reports of a franchised Premiership without at least eight of the biggest clubs in the country, as a fait accompli. Baron, Thomas and Andrew tore into those reports yesterday, denying in the strongest terms that the union intended to push the likes of Leicester, Northampton, Bath and Wasps to the margins. It will not be the last time they feel driven to fire bullets at the media.

Away from the politics, the Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter hinted he might yet be fit for the Calcutta Cup match with England in the first round of the Six Nations Championship a fortnight on Saturday, despite the gravity of the shoulder injury he suffered during the Test against the Pacific Islands a couple of months ago. The 24-year-old Lions tourist is hoping to play for Borders in 11 days' time.

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