Baron plays big brother to the world

International season: Idealism joined with self-interest in Twickenham's controversial welfare plan
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The Independent Online

In a cri de coeur for the Romanians of this world, the Rugby Football Union have launched an initiative which they see as not so much a helping hand, more a lifeline. "In some countries the game is going bust,'' declared Francis Baron, chief executive of the RFU. "Rugby in Romania could cease to exist in three years' time.'' It barely had a pulse at Twickenham two weeks ago when England beat the Romanians 134-0.

As Clive Woodward, the England manager pointed out, the red-rose game is "incredibly healthy'' but the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened, particularly since professionalism.

"It doesn't help anybody when a team suffer a drubbing,'' Baron said. "Romania were devastated to lose by such a margin. It's almost embarrassing to see a proud people humiliated by such a result. We can't go through another year like this.'' By showing no mercy, England were making a point, 134 of them.

The RFU have come up with a five-year plan designed to redress the imbalance. It is by no means perfect – self-interest is high on the agenda – but it is better than nothing. Under "Adopt a Good Cause", England would have a formal agreement with America and Canada, two giants who have been sleeping for so long they are in danger of catching hypothermia.

The practical assistance would cover coaching and refereeing development, provision of places at youth academies, administrative support, commercial expertise to increase local revenue, technical assistance on pitches and facilities, and fixtures to foster playing potential.

The International Rugby Board, who have a duty to spread the game, have 94 members and that, according to Baron, is about 60 too many. The RFU's solution ends in tiers: "priority unions'' coming under the umbrella of "foundation unions'', thus England offering succour to United States and Canada, Australia to Japan and Fiji, France to Romania and China, Ireland to Portugal and Spain, New Zealand to Samoa and Tonga, Scotland to Georgia and Russia, South Africa to Uruguay and Namibia, and Wales to Holland and Sweden.

The sweet 16 have been selected from what the RFU call the "development criteria matrix", which is based on a country's playing record, population, economics and facilities. Others will see England more in the role of dominatrix. Canada, whose recent tour to Europe was cancelled following a players' strike (it has now been resolved) scores 75 per cent to lead the criteria table.

Even so, the Canadians and the Americans struggled to fulfil their tour obligations when England visited last summer. Tonga's tour had to be subsidised by the hosts to the tune of £90,000, a much lower figure than that requested. There were similar problems with Samoa and Fiji, and the latter union are so strapped for cash they have had to sell their offices.

Aside from Baron Aid, the game relies on funding from the World Cup. Held every four years, the Webb Ellis Cup has been won by New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Australia again, in 1999. Since its inception in 1987 it has suffered, apart from the odd upset, from being too predictable, the usual suspects coasting through the pool stages to reach the quarter-finals. It is a shop window, but the same old goods are on display.

"The IRB are trying to support too many countries,'' Baron said. "If the World Cup makes a profit of say £5m it doesn't amount to much when it's divided by 94. Inevitably the jam is being spread thinly and is clearly not sufficient even to allow many of the developing unions to bear the costs of their tour commitments, let alone develop as a playing force.

"It is time to take tough decisions. In our view only 16 of the developing countries stand a chance of getting to the knock-out stages of the World Cup. We need a formal plan and we are prepared to put our money where our mouth is. If we carry on in this haphazard fashion we could end up with half-a-dozen teams playing against each other all the time.''

Baron refers to the scheme as "completing a virtuous circle'', and to finance it would require "new money''. The problem is that it would come from old wells, with England repeatedly playing the southern hemisphere's big three, creating instead a vicious circle. The International Board's answer is to impose a two per cent levy on Test gate receipts, but the RFU fear that figure would rise and they would be the biggest donor to the kitty.

To accommodate their plan, the RFU claim the IRB tours schedule would have to be "completely revamped''. The RFU want the established powers to revert to traditional tours (among each other) while the have-nots can forget about playing internationals at Twickenham or Paris "until they can afford to do so and were competitive from a playing point of view''.

However, England and Co would fly the flag in visits to the poorer countries, albeit with squads of uncapped or even amateur players. The bill would be picked up by the visitors, not the hosts.

In another gesture, England would forgo their annual £150,000 from the IRB, and if the other senior partners followed suit, £1.2m would be given to those who needed it. A much larger sum could also be released from the IRB's trust-fund reserves.

"It would not be necessary for any IRB levy,'' Baron argued. "In any event, attempting to impose such a levy on the foundation unions could well be counter-productive. It would almost certainly be strongly resisted by the grass-roots clubs and could undermine the general support needed in the game for the IRB's development policy. The proposals have to be considered very much as a package. They are not an à la carte list. We believe they have the potential to make a dramatic improvement to the global development of the game.''

The document might have added that the have-nots would not be in such a state but for being asset-stripped by the haves. Jonah Lomu could be playing for Tonga rather than the All Blacks, and there are a whole host of examples of the gamekeepers acting as poachers.

Meanwhile the status quo is maintained. Next autumn England play New Zealand, Australia and South Africa at Twickenham, where the demand for £50 tickets will be oversubscribed by four times. Before the unlucky supporters receive a refund on their applications, the cheques are banked and interest earnt. The RFU can afford to put their money where their mouth is, but whether the rest of the world swallows their lead is another matter.