"Even if the RFU are seriously interested in negotiating controlling interests in one or more clubs, which I rather doubt, their chances of success are zero," said one very senior Premiership player chasing a place in the Test side. "What are they going to tell the sponsors and broadcasters who pump millions into club rugby? That they can stick their money where the sun doesn't shine? Come off it."
All the same, the club-versus-country politics that has plagued the sport since the dawning of professionalism returned with a vengeance at Loughborough, although neither the RFU nor Premier Rugby, the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation, would respond to reports that the union had tabled proposals to spend a supposed £15m on buying their way into the Premiership as a means of controlling the activities of international-class players, explaining that while wide-ranging discussion documents containing a raft of radical ideas had been exchanged, confidentiality was the order of the day.
One Premier Rugby source did go so far as to say that the buy-in was a "non-starter", as most Premiership clubs were either breaking even or in profit and beginning to show a return on the investments of the last 10 years. The most likely outcome of the current discussions is a heavily revamped Long Form Agreement under which the clubs will agree to an increased release of players into red-rose custody, in return for generous financial incentives linked to the development of England-qualified players.
Certainly, the national head coach, Andy Robinson, was confident of reaching an agreement. "I believe in club rugby, but I'm also passionate about England rugby," he said. "We need clarity here. The old system, whereby players were with their clubs one week and their country the next, demanded huge sacrifices and placed unnecessary demands on their family lives. By blocking off their commitments, everyone knows where they stand and what they have in front of them.
"I've been up front in putting forward sound proposals on this. I want to see something put in place that will last, not just for the two years leading into the 2007 World Cup, but for the next six or seven years. We need a long-term settlement, because big events like World Cups and Lions tours aren't about to go away."
Robinson will take charge of the players again from 31 October, the day after the conclusion of the second round of Heineken Cup pool games, and keep hold of the majority until the end of the next month's international programme.
The clubs' generosity in bidding their most influential performers a fond farewell for the best part of a month, during which important Premiership fixtures are scheduled, has prompted Robinson to agree that the eight players not required for his match-day squads will be released in good time to appear in league matches.
The coach confirmed that Loughborough University would be the new base for the England team outside of Test weeks, when they will return to their country hotel headquarters in Bagshot. "This is a superb training environment, staffed by people who understand élite performance," he said. "Also, there is a social life here. It makes it possible for the players to live like human beings."
He gave no indication that he would fast-track either Jonny Wilkinson or Lawrence Dallaglio, two World Cup-winning hands fresh back from injury, into his the current squad. "Lawrence hasn't actually played yet; Jonny has been on the field for half a game," he said, exasperated at the suggestion that one or both of them might feature next month. "Let's give them a chance, eh?"
On the subject of the two uncapped newcomers most likely to face Australia on 12 November, the Wasps full-back Mark van Gisbergen and the Gloucester lock Alex Brown, he was far more enthusiastic. "They don't seem like new guys," he said. "It's as if they've always been here. I'm delighted with the way they've expressed themselves."Reuse content