Canadian player strike hits international friendlies

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The Independent Online

The International Rugby Board has been rail-roaded into scrapping Canada's autumn Tests with Australia, Ireland and Scotland after failing to broker an agreement between the Canadian union and its players, who are taking strike action over the sacking of their national coach, Dave Clark, last month.

Three years ago, the IRB hit Twickenham with all sorts of sanctions during its various battles with the rank and file of the English game. It will be intriguing to see what action, if any, it takes against the impoverished administrators in Vancouver.

Australia requested the cancellation of their forthcoming tour match with the Canucks when it became clear that they would face a side drawn from the lower reaches of a tiny rugby-playing community. That request was granted yesterday. At the same time, the IRB released Canada from their autumn dates in Dublin and Edinburgh. The Scots will now play Argentina on 18 November. The Irish, already committed to completing a Six Nations' programme interrupted by the foot-and-mouth outbreak, will not seek an alternative fixture.

"We very much regret this situation," an IRB spokesman said last night. "The board will now examine all the implications arising from the failure of Canadian players to make themselves available for selection. The future of rugby in Canada is extremely important to the international rugby community and the IRB will work closely with the Canadian Rugby Union to re-establish the country's position among the leading nations."

As a matter of policy, the IRB consider it the duty of a national union to solve its internal disputes before the Test programme is affected. Twickenham's failure to do so cost them a stack of money as recently as 1998, when the Premiership clubs played a series of unofficial matches with Cardiff and Swansea while the two Welsh clubs were in conflict with their governing body. However, Canada's dire financial position means that the board will find it difficult to maintain consistency. As the IRB discovered last season, when leading Samoan players refused to play Test rugby after a rumpus over pay, it is not easy to fine a union that has no money.

At least 50 of Canada's best players, and all of their best-known ones, are demanding the reinstatement of Clark, who acted outside his brief by attempting to negotiate sponsorship deals for his charges. They also want a greater say in the decision-making process. Virtually all of the leading Canucks earn their living in Europe, and many have spent thousands of pounds of their own cash travelling the world on international duty. They believe their union has hung them out to dry, and are demanding change.

Agustin Pichot, the Argentinian scrum-half and one of the leading figures in the Pumas' campaign to professionalise the game in their country, said he was "sorry that Canada are unable to fulfil the fixture against Scotland". As one of those forced abroad by a union still in thrall to the amateur ideal, he understands the nature of the struggle in North America.

* Mveleli Ncula has been appointed as the first black chief executive of the South African Rugby Football Union.The 54-year-old Ncula succeeds Rian Oberholzer, who has taken up the position of managing director of SA Rugby (Pty) Ltd – the newly formed controlling arm of professional rugby in South Africa. Ncula will be responsible for running amateur and schools rugby in South Africa as well as spending the union's budget on rugby development.

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