Control of game is real issue in union's latest dispute

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The Independent Online

It is hard to think of a better arbitrator than Sir Oliver Popplewell in the latest row to sunder rugby union football in England. Though still only 73, young for a judge, he retired from the High Court bench last year. He is a Cambridge Blue [cricket] with an interest in most sports. Fifteen years ago he chaired the committee of inquiry into safety at football grounds.

It is hard to think of a better arbitrator than Sir Oliver Popplewell in the latest row to sunder rugby union football in England. Though still only 73, young for a judge, he retired from the High Court bench last year. He is a Cambridge Blue [cricket] with an interest in most sports. Fifteen years ago he chaired the committee of inquiry into safety at football grounds.

The only thing I have against him is that he complied with the request of Jonathan Aitken's defence team to have the libel case against the Guardian tried without a jury. In the end, however, the absence of a jury made no difference - and Sir Oliver assured me afterwards that, despite his polite demeanour, he had not believed, by any means, the whole of Aitken's evidence.

He now has to preside over a very different kind of dispute. It is about whether promotion to and relegation from what is now the Zurich Premiership - rugby union sponsors come and go like pop groups - should be one or two places, to be decided by positions in the final tables, or one place, to be decided by a play-off.

The principle of "ring fencing", whereby the Premiership was to remain inviolate for at least three years, seems to have been conceded by the leading professional clubs. That is why Rob Andrew, the author of the plan for the future of professional rugby, has resigned his official positions apart, of course, from being manager of Newcastle.

I have no intention, by the way, of referring to them as Newcastle Falcons, to Sale as Sale Sharks, to Wasps as London Wasps or to any other team by some ridiculous name that has been thought up by a bright spark in marketing. A few years ago when Wales were passing through a particularly low patch, the attempt was made to christen them "The Dragons", for all the world as if a change of name would improve their performance on the field.

All these fripperies are designed to make money, though goodness knows why anyone should imagine they would. The promotion-relegation issue, by contrast, involves real money from Rupert Murdoch and other benefactors which the Rugby Football Union has in its coffers and is hanging on to (even though some has been distributed) till the dispute is resolved.

Andrew has resigned partly because he thinks it is wrong that such an issue should take so long to decide. So far it has taken six months. In lieu of the way rugby has conducted its controversies in the past five years, this is but a grain of sand, and young Rob might as well settle down for the night.

In one way my sympathies are with Andrew. It is always frustrating and annoying to work hard and write a report, only to find it ignored or modified out of existence. Even so, it does not seem to me that ring-fencing is of its essence. Andrew believes it is and Tom Walkinshaw, the Gloucester owner, agrees with him. The equally ambitious Worcester owner Cecil Duckworth disagrees.

I feel that Duckworth takes the view he does not so much because he wants a fluid and open structure in rugby as because he wants to see Worcester in the Premiership. For myself, I should like to see the Duckworths and the Walkinshaws, the Wrights and the Wrays, all take themselves back to property, pop music or whatever was the source of their wealth and leave rugby alone. But if a choice between Walkinshaw and Duckworth has to be made, I am with Duckworth.

I should be prepared to concede the promotion and relegation of one club alone because the top division consists of 12 clubs only. That would be the sole concession. Otherwise, we shall know that rugby has been handed over to the Walkinshaws of this world.

As we have already been told, and it is true, the real issue is not about promotion and relegation but about who controls the game, the professional clubs or the RFU.

Rugby is not big enough or rich enough to have, as in football, both an association and a league.

What should have happened was that 45 or 60 players should have been contracted to the RFU and paid a good (though not a munificent) salary. Clubs could then pay players according to their purse, some of them merely receiving holiday, or new-car money, while the large salaries could still be paid to the Horans, Lams and Littles of the game.

It is doubtful whether Sir Oliver will consider these larger matters. Still, even the narrow question of promotion and relegation will be as difficult to decide as the Jonathan Aitken case.

Perhaps it is a good thing that, besides cricket, he used to play football rather than rugby.

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