Baron of Zurich ducks the awkward slingshots

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The Independent Online

Rob Andrew, speaking in the Spirit of Rugby suite at Twickenham, asked everybody to remember the date: 17 August 2000. That was when English rugby finally got its act together and shook professionalism by the hand rather than the throat.

Rob Andrew, speaking in the Spirit of Rugby suite at Twickenham, asked everybody to remember the date: 17 August 2000. That was when English rugby finally got its act together and shook professionalism by the hand rather than the throat.

The newly named Zurich Premiership was the "best league in the world", according to Andrew, a claim verified, he said, by the decision of leading Australians and Frenchmen to join English clubs. "At last," Andrew went on, "we have a sustainable future."

There was warm applause for every speaker, from Francis Baron, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, to the executives of Zurich Financial Services who expressed, not surprisingly, complete faith in the product they were sponsoring. It was difficult not to see it as an historic day, almost like the crossing of the Rubicon. The future would be Baron not barren.

And then some awkward questions were asked. What about promotion and relegation, an issue that the Andrew plan made no provision for? Last week English First Division Rugby voted for the reinstatement of last season's compromise - the bottom club in the Premiership will play the top club in the Second Division, home and away. But Cecil Duckworth, the millionaire investor of Worcester, wants automatic promotion for the Second Division champions plus a play-off for the runners-up. "It's a cosy cartel for the leading clubs," Duckworth said. "But without promotion and relegation the game at every other level will be killed off. Crowds will lose interest. Competition is the great driving force."

An upshot of the uncertainty is that the Premiership clubs have missed out on two monthly instalments amounting to £300,000 of the £1.8m due to them from the RFU under the Andrew plan. The first payment was due in July, the second earlier this month. Baron assured the clubs that the money is in the bank, although until agreement can be reached the cheques are not in the post.

It's a fair bet that the RFU wish they'd never heard of Duckworth, who is chairman of the Second Division and a member of the RFU council. He won't go away and English Second Division Rugby, who feel they've been abandoned, are ready for a fight. At a meeting last Wednesday not only did they reiterate their stance on promotion but announced they had no intention, under RFU restructuring, of being called National Division One. That would leave them even more remote from EFDR. At least ESDR sounds like a close relation.

There are other differences of opinion. The Andrew plan was supposed to lighten the load on the leading players but insiders fear the opposite will happen. "We are trying not to run the players into the ground," Andrew said, before adding ominously, "but equally we have a business to run." No wonder the RFU is recommending that players top-up their accident cover.

There were two pieces of silverware on display, one for the Premiership, which will finish in April and the other for the Championship which will run from April to May. The draw for the Championship will be shaped by the positions of the top eight clubs. In an intensive three-week campaign, the leading club in the Premiership will open the Championship by playing the team that finished eighth. The outcome will affect qualification for the European Cup and the British Cup.

There was not time to shoe-horn the latter into the present schedule, but it will be introduced next season. Its appearance will, in turn, lead to the downgrading of the Tetley's Bitter Cup which, after this season, will kiss goodbye to the 12 Premiership clubs. Defending the controversial move, Baron explained that the gap between the Goliaths and the Davids had widened and that acts of giant-killing were a thing of the past. By removing the slingshots, another romantic chapter will be lost to a game which, after all, was declared "open" by the International Board five years ago.

Nor is there union on the question of the £1.8m salary cap for each squad, with some clubs viewing with deep suspicion the spending sprees of others. EFDR say they have spent £70,000 introducing auditors' checks, but there are any number of ways star players can be incorporated into clubs without the full expenditure appearing in the books. And a number of high-flying owners didn't get where they are today by not knowing their way around creative accountancy.

By the end, everything did not seem quite so rosy. If Baron was evasive, he pointed out that he had meetings to attend and matters to resolve but even John Inverdale, the master of ceremonies, lost patience. "How many meetings are you attending?" Inverdale asked Baron, who was not tempted to reply."He won't answer that one either," Inverdale added.

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