Once again it seems that Premier Rugby, or at least some of their more hawkish members, are spoiling for a fight with the Rugby Football Union. This season's flashpoint is the 11-week rest period for the English players who toured with the Lions, but threatening to gatecrash the action is that old warhorse, central contracts. The issues are related.
Leicester, Sale and Wasps have continued to play their star men. Last week the RFU's management board responded by withholding £135,000 from the rebellious three. In turn, the clubs are hinting at legal action or even withdrawing their players from England duty.
Lawrence Dallaglio, who probably would have broken the Lions' hibernation but for being injured, describes 11 weeks as "unrealistic". "You can't throw a blanket over this," he said. "Some people need to play more than others. Matt Dawson was with the Lions but played only two games in two months. No burnout there. You have to trust the clubs to look after their players. At Wasps we get better and better as the season progresses because we're given the necessary rest and are in great shape when we need to be."
Premier Rugby's defence for ignoring the mini-sabbatical is not so much that it is unrealistic but that they never reached an agreement in the first place. They had better have a damned good lawyer, because the RFU have chapter and verse on this.
The 11-week rest period appears in three agreements: the first signed in 2001 which led to the creation of the joint enterprise, England Rugby Ltd; the second in the four-year Elite Player Scheme agreed last summer; and the third relating to the Lions. The creation of the EPS, which is managed by Chris Spice, the performance director of the RFU, and incor-porates individually agreed playing, training and rest programmes, has one overriding goal - a successful England defence of the World Cup in 2007.
A £2 million compensation fund was established for the clubs. However, last week Leicester, the model of a successful club on and off the pitch, launched a premeditated pincer attack on the RFU. Peter Wheeler, the Tigers' chief executive, says the club's Test players are unavailable for about four months of the year and the RFU want even more of their time. Leicester's compensation is £400,000 a year. Peter Tom, the chairman, said: "The RFU's objective is to centrally contract our leading players. This is fundamentally wrong for club and country." He said that, as a public company, Leicester were duty bound to their shareholders to recover the money owed.
The RFU, for obvious reasons, are in favour of managing the England squad, and they might have cast an envious eye over the Ashes-winning cricketers, who are centrally contracted. The downside is that the heroes hardly play for their counties. The RFU say that would not be the case for the clubs.
"This should have been done 10 years ago when the game turned professional," Dallaglio said. "The RFU have missed the boat. They offered me a contract once, but then the other clubs threatened not to play Wasps if I signed. England would love to have control of the players, keep the squad together and decide which games they play in, but it's not the solution. You can be better coached at your club than by the national set-up."
Dallaglio, who hopes to return for Wasps in early November, added: "We won the World Cup without having central contracts. We've been unsuccessful since, but that has nothing to do with contracts. We peaked in Australia and we had world-class players, but it took its toll physically and mentally, not just on the squad but on the coaches. We achieved what we set out to achieve and then there was an element of complacency.
"Clive Woodward carried on for a couple of seasons when his mind was elsewhere. England will be back. They should be hungry, and there are some big reputations that need to be rebuilt. It will be done on the back of a healthy club competition. The clubs have pumped huge amounts in, and there's no way they're going to allow their players to be tied to the RFU."
Naturally the Union, who have contributed £35m to the Premiership pot, have more than a vested interest, yet their proposals are being dismissed in the absence of any meaningful discussion. Rob Andrew of Newcastle said that any player who signed a central contract would be "banished". "If the RFU are looking for a fight they've picked the wrong time," he said. "The clubs will stick together and there will only be one winner."
And that could be the RFU. On the now infamous 11-week hiatus, Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, said: "We've paid everything due to the clubs who have not broken the agreement."
The club owners are fond of pointing out that England's World Cup triumph came from a strong Premiership which was only made possible by their considerable financial input. But the spin-offs from the triumph Down Under hugely benefited the game, particularly at Premiership level. As for the players, they like nothing better than a little country jam with their club sandwich.
Under central contracts the RFU would pay the salaries of England's top 30 earners, even if they were injured. Andrew might like to reflect on the money he could have saved had Jonny Wilkinson been part of the Union. And what of the injured Andy Farrell who, like Jason Robinson (one of Sale's rest-breakers) and Henry Paul, was lured from rugby league in a joint club-RFU deal? Saracens claim that despite a contribution of £600,000 from the RFU, Farrell is solely contracted to the club. It's not something you'd want to shout from the rooftops.Reuse content