England's leading clubs suffered a demoralising defeat in the High Court yesterday when a judge reinforced the Rugby Football Union's right to call up Premiership players for the planned fourth autumn international against New Zealand.
Premier Rugby Limited felt the Long Form Agreement, drawn up in 2001 between the RFU and clubs, stipulated there would be a maximum of eight internationals per season - three in the autumn and five Six Nations games. But Mr Justice Mackie's interpretation of this aspect of the 100-page document has prompted PRL to seek leave to appeal against the decision.
Privately, senior figures in clubs up and down the country were staggered that the ruling went against the clubs and Mark McCafferty, chief executive of PRL explained: "Effectively, he has supported the interpretation that they are allowed to schedule the extra international and, more particularly, that we are required to release the players for that fixture.
"The LFA was set up to protect the club game, to try to create a balance between clubs and country. We thought we had the certainty [of] a given number of international matches in the season, eight, but this ruling appears to have taken away that certainty."
The irony of the decision is that this is the match that the England coach, Andy Robinson, least wanted. The New Zealand match, to celebrate the opening of the new South Stand at Twickenham, is scheduled for 5 November and thus opens the four-match autumn programme.
Had the decision gone the other way then Robinson's first match would have been against Argentina, a match which, while promising to be hard, is one that England, after five straight defeats, are expected to win.
Now, thanks to the High Court decision, they face the likes of Daniel Carter, Richie McCaw and the rest of the rampant All Blacks. And the following week Robinson will be obliged to field a weaker side against Argentina, since two Tests against South Africa follow.
Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, said: "While we are pleased the court has upheld our interpretation of the LFA, we remain disappointed that Premier Rugby chose not to settle this matter through common-sense negotiation. I am sure that the game will welcome this result and look forward to joining in the planned celebration event on 5 November."Reuse content