Baron plea for unity over Six Nations spoils

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The Independent Online

Money does strange things to rugby people, as the endless bickering over Five Nations' Championship broadcasting revenues has demonstrated all too clearly down the years. Now that the five nations have become six, with the addition of the impoverished Italians, the argument over who should share what with whom is about to enter a new and potentially dangerous phase.

The Six Nations' television sub-committee will meet on Friday to discuss how best to maximise broadcasting returns for what remains the world's most popular annual tournament. France, those perennial flies in the ointment who have traditionally negotiated their own deals for International Championship matches played in Paris, have agreed to enter the common pool when new contracts are awarded for the 2002-03 season onwards, and much depends on the amount of hard cash they bring to the table. If it is less than anticipated, and the cake has to be cut six ways because of Italy's presence, the atmosphere is likely to be every bit as fractious as usual.

England know all about the problems broadcasting money can cause: vilified for their decision to sign a unilateral satellite deal with BSkyB in 1995, they found themselves ejected, albeit briefly, from the championship as the so-called "Celtic bloc" – Ireland, Scotland and Wales – rose up in what they considered to be righteous anger. Independent valuers were summoned to establish exactly what percentage of income was generated by the red rose army, with its huge television audience and, although the details of the valuation were never made public, Twickenham officials pronounced themselves satisfied with the outcome.

Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, should, therefore, be in a strong negotiating position. But he emphasised yesterday that the Six Nations community required a unified approach if the most lucrative financial returns were to be realised. "The first requirement is to get agreement on the precise form of the tender that will be put out to the market place," Baron said yesterday. "Unity is vital, because the Italian problem is now there to be resolved. The Italians are not covered by the existing accord, so that will have to be looked at again. We need to make sure that the Italians are given a satisfactory share of the revenues, a share that will allow them to continue their development as a major power."

Baron defended the RFU's recent agreement covering non-Six Nations internationals at Twickenham, under which games will be broadcast live on satellite and then screened "as live" by the BBC. The last "as live" experiment, with ITV as terrestrial partners, was a shambles – by the end, viewers were being fed an insubstantial diet of brief, poorly-edited highlights. Baron thinks the BBC will offer the oval-ball majority something a little better. "I'm very optimistic," he said. "The BBC will give rugby an excellent evening slot of 5.15, immediately after Grandstand's results service, when the audience peaks at between five and six million. It should be good for us."

Happily, the RFU has recommitted itself to next summer's tour of the Pacific islands, which features full Tests against Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. Rumours had circulated to the effect that England planned to downgrade the trip to "development" status – that is to say, send a bunch of little-known rookies into the rugby badlands of the South Seas – or abandon it altogether. That would have dealt a devastating blow to the morale of three marvellous rugby nations, whose contribution to the world game has never been adequately recognised by the major powers.

"We have just written to all three unions, suggesting possible itineraries," Baron confirmed. "If possible, we would like to play additional games, rather than three straight Tests. Our intention is to win each game, and I am sure Clive Woodward [the England manager] will select a squad capable of doing that." The tour will take place immediately after the end of the domestic season, in early June.

On the Premiership front, the England and Lions prop Phil Vickery is expected to make his first league appearance of the campaign when Gloucester take on Leicester at Kingsholm on Saturday. Vickery, in his first season as Cherry and White captain, has been suffering from groin and hamstring problems.