Stade Francais, the powerhouse Parisian team who have sold more than 75,000 tickets for their domestic championship match with Toulouse this weekend, are seeking to back the Rugby Football Union into an expensive corner as the contractual row over the international flanker James Haskell continues. Haskell, currently training with England ahead of the Six Nations meeting with Scotland in nine days' time, will certainly miss his side's biggest game of the season, but the ramifications of this latest club v country dispute could be far reaching.
Max Guazzini, the financier behind Stade Français's rise to prominence, is thought to be preparing the ground for a compensation bid in respect of English players who sign for his team, as Haskell did last summer. Every other country in the Six Nations releases foreign-based players to their clubs in the tournament's "dead" weeks: Stade Français themselves have the Bergamasco brothers, Mauro and Mirco, back from Italy duty, along with the Scotland full-back Hugo Southwell, and all three are expected to face Toulouse at Stade de France on Saturday. Guazzini cannot understand why Haskell, an expensive recruit, is considered by the RFU to be an exception and is asking the Six Nations organising committee to consider the matter.
Aware that the RFU pays good money to the top English clubs for access to players, Guazzini is keen on establishing a similar principle for French teams, especially when they are deprived of leading personnel for mere training purposes. If he succeeds, Twickenham could find itself shelling out tens of thousands of pounds every season.
On Tuesday, the Stade Français president issued a strongly worded statement asking why he should be expected to "fund the preparation of an England team", adding that no agreement had been reached between his club and the RFU. He went on to challenge Twickenham to produce details of any agreement they considered relevant, and made the point that there was nothing in the International Rugby Board's regulations governing player release to support England. On this last point, he was correct. The regulations cover only the five active weeks of the seven-week Six Nations window.
Yesterday, the RFU dug in its heels. "Our position is unchanged," said a spokesman. "James is staying with the England squad. Via his contract with Stade Français, he is available for all senior England elite player squad sessions." Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, was expected to reveal supporting details of that claim today.
Last year, Andrew and the England manager, Martin Johnson, made it abundantly clear to Haskell – and to other players moving in the same direction, including the Toulon-bound Jonny Wilkinson and the Brive-bound Riki Flutey – that they expected them to be available for training days, as identified under the long-term agreement between the RFU and the leading English clubs. There has been no issue until now, but with Stade struggling to make the cut for next year's Heineken Cup qualification, their need for results is far more urgent than it was before Christmas.
Meanwhile, the French drew some comfort from the failure of Jerry Flannery's appeal against a six-week suspension yesterday. The Ireland hooker was banned for hacking the wing Alexis Palisson across the knees during the Six Nations match between the two countries last month – a punishment that ruled him out of the remainder of the tournament. Yesterday, his attempt to have the sentence reduced was thrown out, as was a move by the Six Nations' own disciplinary department to have it increased.
The appeal panel, chaired by Judge Jeff Blackett of England and featuring Douglas Hunter of Scotland and Marco Cordelli of Italy, decided that the initial punishment was right and proper. Flannery will miss the last two Six Nations games against Wales and Scotland, just as he missed last weekend's victory over England at Twickenham, but he will be available for Munster's eagerly-awaited Heineken Cup quarter-final with Northampton in Limerick on 9 April.
In the Premiership, Bath have signed the 26-year-old scrum-half Mark McMillan from Glasgow on a two-year contract starting in the summer.Reuse content