Club v Country: 'You have the players, we have more say'

Premiership chief spells out deal to the Union as impasse threatens World Cup build-up
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The Independent Online

The embattled Rugby Football Union are girding themselves for a review of the lost season, and the outcome could be the bloodiest since Harold Macmillan's night of the long knives. After England finished fourth in a six-horse race for the second year running, the prime movers in the Union likened it to the unacceptable face of Twickenham.

"People's careers are on the line, so every individual who legitimately has something to say will be given the opportunity to say it," Francis Baron, the chief executive, declared last week. "A number of decisions have to be made, and not just with a view to next year's World Cup but for the long term. We will not be rushed into doing a half-baked job. We have to sort out a wide range of issues because results aren't being delivered." The management board will deliver the result of the review on 26 April.

Baron, who has already pre-sided over a cull at headquarters, thought that fourth place in the Six Nations was intol-erable, and revealed that on the basis of rewards for results, England's diminished share from broadcasting and sponsorship had cost the RFU £1 million. He also had to fork out for a first-class stamp, sending a letter to Rupert Lowe, the chairman of Southampton FC, regretting the publicity linking Sir Clive Woodward, the club's high-profile signing, with a return to Twickenham. Baron said he wouldn't dream of an unsolicited approach.

Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the RFU and a solicitor to boot, admitted talking to Sir Clive, but not to discuss a "job that doesn't exist". Woodward is not a disinterested spectator at the inquest but Thomas, commenting on the speculation, said: "There were times when I thought Hans Christian Andersen had come back from the dead." He could have chosen the Brothers Grimm, for things could yet get a whole lot grimmer if England refuse to play ball with the clubs.

Andy Robinson, the head coach, appeared to receive a vote of confidence when Thomas said: "If Andy needs more time with his players we'll try to negotiate it for him." Woodward resigned after winning the World Cup, citing restricted access to players, and he had a blast not only at the RFU but the clubs, their owners and coaches.

Premier Rugby, the body representing the 12 Guinness Premiership clubs, say they have a solution to the age-old problem, but whether the RFU, or indeed the suspicious Celtic League, will wear it is another matter. The clubs are willing to do a deal - their players will spend more time with England in exchange for greater control over the Heineken Cup, rugby's answer to the Champions' League, and the Powergen Cup, the revised Anglo-Welsh competition.

Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, says he doesn't like the word "control", it's too provocative. "We want a greater say in how they're run and promoted. We understand why England want more access to our players but not everybody gets what they want. However, things can be done on a quid pro quo basis. We can improve the situation for England going into the summer and autumn, but we mustfind common ground.

"We provide a steady conveyor belt of English talent at various national levels and we want to create a virtuous circle, not a vicious one. We're offering a package, including fixture scheduling and training days, that would mean we both know where we stand. Whoever the RFU bring in will have to wrestle with the same old problems. All we do all the time is tackle individual issues, and there is always something in dispute. The Unions are shareholders in the Heineken Cup and they have brought a lot to the party. It dovetails with the international game and they would remain involved, but we want a greater say because we will drive up the values and bring in new money.

"Success in Europe is a matter of life or death for a club like Leicester, and therefore we have more of a vested interest. If we are allowed to be more self-dependent and to develop the commercial side it would set in train a process that would benefit the whole of England rugby.

"With financial stability we could have more depth and larger playing squads, which means we'd be in a better position to absorb the demands made on us by the international game. If we are successful, players could spend more time with England, and without the money coming from the RFU's coffers."

Last season the RFU created revenues of £84.8m and the Premiership's turnover was £36m. "The tragedy is that the financial health of the Union and the clubs has never been better, making us the strongest in the world," McCafferty said. Not counting gate receipts, the Premiership clubs get £300,000 each out of the Heineken Cup, a sum, they say, that could be considerably increased if they were driving the business plan. "The alternative is a constant stand-off between us and the Union," McCafferty said. "Preserving the status quo is not going to do it."

McCafferty, who has only been in the job since August, is a central figure in the power struggle for hearts, minds and, above all, wallets. The clubs are desperate to increase revenue to develop grounds and accommodate more spectators. He says he has a working relationship with Baron, an old rival from the travel industry. McCafferty used to be with Thomas Cook, Baron with First Choice. Their familiarity didn't stop them from going head to head in the High Court before the RFU withdrew their legal action. The Union withheld Lions payments, arguing that the England captain, Martin Corry, and others had broken the agreement over a rest period following the tour to New Zealand, and that the clubs were not sticking to the élite player scheme. It left a bitter taste. "All of a sudden the RFU wanted a lot more than 16 days, and in taking away our prize assets it would have caused too much damage to our business," McCafferty said. "It's not a one-way street." He estimated the Union's costs at £500,000.

Premier Rugby and their French counterparts think the Heineken Cup is half full, but rewriting the Paris Accord, which was agreed by the Six Nations, would require conversion on a Biblical scale. An alternative could be a so-called World Club Championship but that, says McCafferty, is a last resort.