Bedevilled by the detail as the clubs dither

If in doubt call a meeting. Friday was a day of wall-to-wall meetings for rugby's weary administrators. From the Rugby Football Union Council meeting straight into a meeting with the First Division clubs, whose resistance to the Rob Andrew plan, although almost broken, remains strong in Gloucester, Northampton and Watford. The fact that the choice is now between the Andrew plan and oblivion does not appear to have reached those parts.

Tom Walkinshaw's proposals for a British League backed by Fablon Investments is as much of a non-starter now as it was two months ago when it was first floated as a fait accompli. Not only is it unacceptable to the RFU, it wouldn't be entertained by the Scots or the Welsh who are, after all, reasonably important to its existence. Yet still the clubs are delaying.

Another meeting is planned for Tuesday between the RFU's negotiators, Fran Cotton, Graham Cattermole, Brian Baister and Francis Baron, and the clubs's representatives Walkinshaw, Peter Wheeler (Leicester), Ed Goodall (Bath) and Chris Haines (Harlequins). This is apparently to discuss the detail of the Andrew plan - the commercial aspects, the extent of the clubs' responsibilities vis-à-vis the Union and the like. It does appear, though, that one part of Andrew's proposals has been accepted. The British Cup will, it is hoped, be up and running next season. The three parties, England, Scotland and Wales, met last week and agreed to move ahead with plans to launch the competition at the start of next season.

The delay in implementing the Andrew plan is, however, causing unrest in a number of areas, not least among the sponsors. If the clubs cannot agree to the RFU's proposals, the sponsors of the Premiership, at present Allied Dunbar, would almost certainly withdraw their financial support, amounting to £3m. This has to be of concern to those clubs less bullish than Gloucester, Northampton and Saracens. But it says much for Walkinshaw's influence within English First Division Rugby, and his persuasiveness, that the subdued majority haven't long ago shown him the door. No doubt the clubs believe that there is still room for an even better deal to be squeezed out of the RFU, although it does appear that the offer as it stands is very much of the take-it-or-leave-it variety.

In return for the £1.8m pay-out per club in the first year, the RFU will be seeking stability at the top end of the game and an efficient production line of home-grown England-qualified talent from the junior academies which the clubs will be required to set up in conjunction with the RFU.

Following a week when the rugby headlines have centred around the acquisition of yet more overseas and cross-border imports into the English club game, the establishment of such centres cannot come quickly enough for those most closely involved with Club England. Nor can it be good for the game in France and Wales when players of the calibre and with the popular appeal of Thomas Castaignÿde and Robert Howley are plucked from their native lands. No country has suffered more in this respect than Scotland, where the game is at grave risk of returning to minority status. This has nothing to do with xenophobia but is about the survival of a game whose future at all levels flows from the success of its national teams.

It is because of, not in spite of, the international game, that 20,000 supporters will travel hundreds of miles to a neutral venue at Reading today to watch the Heineken Cup semi-final between Northampton and Llanelli. The day when club rugby, like football, can stand unaided and independent is still a long way off, and it may never accumulate the supporter base necessary for such independence, but there is no reason why both cannot prosper, the one in support of the other. The European Cup quarter-final between Northampton and Wasps was a great day out, displaying club rugby at its very best. Keith Barwell, Northampton's owner, may never invite me to tea but there is no more delightful place to be on a Saturday afternoon than Franklin's Gardens where the old and the new blend in such comfortable harmony.

Northampton have, however, taken a massive and perhaps suicidal gamble by going into today's game against Llanelli without Paul Grayson whose goal-kicking not only got them into the last four but has kept them in touch with opponents who, spared the fly-half's remorseless accuracy, would have won much more convincingly. Not only has Grayson kicked the points but he has caused the opposition to think twice before infringing.

In other words he has put a brake on their scoring potential. Northampton's decision to select Ali Hepher as play-maker is laudable and displays their enthusiasm for returning to that part of the season when they played with sumptuous fluency, but the ascent to such heights is a painstaking one. It doesn't happen overnight. It is a slow process requiring each member of the team to play his part.

Some, of course, will have a more influential part to play than others and always there will be one or two who misfire on the day, but when Northampton were at their peak they played with a confidence and swagger which has been grievously eroded. Asking them to reach those peaks again is surely placing hope way above experience.

Comments