Club and country row poses threat to Six Nations

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The Independent Online

Just as England start to get things right on the field so it all goes bad off it. Yesterday there were noises off that the Premiership clubs were going to refuse to release their England internationals if any matches have to be rearranged because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Just as England start to get things right on the field so it all goes bad off it. Yesterday there were noises off that the Premiership clubs were going to refuse to release their England internationals if any matches have to be rearranged because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

The Irish RFU met representatives of its country's government yesterday and an announcement is expected this morning about whether the England game can go ahead on the original 24 March date.

And the French federation is expected to let Wales know today whether the game in Paris can be played on 17 March, although Bernard Lapasset, the FFR President, has said that if there is one solitary incidence of foot-and-mouth in his country then all matches would be postponed. Meanwhile, the Scottish Rugby Union assured supporters last night that their game against Italy, scheduled for 17 March at Murrayfield, was definitely on.

A meeting of the Six Nations committee in London last Friday had resolved that if the England match could not take place that it would be rearranged for 5 May, or the following Saturday, 12 May. Those dates clash with the proposed Zurich Championship play-offs.

Yesterday, the Saracens owner, Nigel Wray, said: "I don't believe the Six Nations committee cares about the English clubs or the sponsors of the competitions we are scheduled to play in May. No one from the Six Nations has contacted us, the clubs, and it is the height of rudeness and presumption."

But last night Keith Barwell, the owner of Northampton Saints, insisted that the clubs could not withhold their international players. "We are bound by agreement and International Board regulations, which requires that players be released for international matches.

"However, you might find that the players may take the position that they will play for their clubs that day, rather than for their country. The players are very angry at the failure of the RFU to come to an agreement with the clubs."

Last night the RFU was attempting to smooth things out. Their operations director, Terry Burwell, went to Oxford where the English First Division Rugby (EFDR) representatives were meeting. Burwell's objective was to help draw up contingency plans in the event of either of England's remaining Six Nations matches, against Ireland and France, being postponed and having to be rescheduled.

Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, issued a statement late in the day which said: "The RFU is working closely with the Six Nations and EFDR clubs to ensure that the Six Nations' Championship, the Zurich Premiership and the Zurich play-offs can all be completed satisfactorily and obligations to sponsors fulfiled. The RFU will be consulting with Zurich during this process." No one member of the Six Nations is getting by trouble free it seems.

The former South Africa coach Nick Mallett heads a shortlist of coaches who could replace the Italian coach Brad Johnstone. The list is expected to contain at least one Frenchman, the Toulouse coach Guy Noves is favourite, a couple of New Zealanders and at least one other South African.

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