Farce is fast becoming a crisis

Chaos is the only certainty unless game's embittered leaders start moving from their trenches
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The Independent Online

Tom Walkinshaw, at least publicly, was the voice of moderation and reason. "There's no point in getting angry," he said. Privately he's seething. "Had we known what was going to happen I'm not sure any of us would have got involved. You would need certifying."

Tom Walkinshaw, at least publicly, was the voice of moderation and reason. "There's no point in getting angry," he said. Privately he's seething. "Had we known what was going to happen I'm not sure any of us would have got involved. You would need certifying."

To neutral observers, it seems that there are few people in rugby union who do not need their heads examined.

A high-flyer in motor racing who owns the Formula One Arrows team, Walkinshaw is bogged down in the latest crisis, namely the saga of promotion and relegation. From Arrows to slings. "This is unique," Walkinshaw said. "I have never been involved in anything like this."

To recap, the Rugby Football Union hatched the Club England concept, under Fran Cotton, to develop the professional end of the game and to avert the so-called Super League proposed by English First Division Rugby (EFDR), which would have involved 10 English, four Welsh and two Scottish clubs.

Out of Club England came the Rob Andrew plan, which originally contained a franchise system for England's leading clubs and five years of "ring fencing" which meant no promotion to or relegation from the Premiership. That has been watered down to two years, with EFDR offering a play-off between the Second Division champions and the bottom club in the Premiership. That is not acceptable to Cecil Duckworth, the chairman of the Second Division, who wants automatic promotion and relegation plus a play-off.

EFDR told him he must be joking, but it is no joke. Duckworth, who has invested about £5m in Worcester, is also a member of the RFU Council, a 49-strong body representing everything in English rugby from Leicester Tigers to the Cornwall Federation of Young Farmers' XV.

Although the Andrew blueprint was approved last April, a junior club at the RFU's annual meeting proposed two-up, two-down, the infamous Resolution 9A which won 85 per cent support from the shires.

The Premiership clubs signed the Andrew agreement, but Duckworth and company refused to budge on the question of promotion and relegation, arguing it was the "life- blood" of the game. Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, and Brian Baister, chairman of the management board, urged the Second Division to think again.

"It's absolutely essential we secure the long-term future of the game in England," Baister said, adding that the Second Division could receive £40m over 10 years, jointly funded by the Premiership and the RFU. "We recognise the necessity of all clubs having access to the top of the game," Baister added. "We also recognise the Premier clubs will be asked to make significant financial investment, and such investment requires a degree of certainty and stability. The RFU believe that the proposal to the Second Division provides a realistic, balanced solution."

There was no response. Exasperated and exhausted, the RFU suggested the clubs should sit around a table with a mediator, the High Court Judge, Sir Oliver Popplewell, who presided over the Lawrence Dallaglio imbroglio.

Last week the RFU Council, at an eight-hour meeting, took everybody by surprise by not only insisting that every Premiership club should attend the meeting with Popplewell, but that if an agreement is not reached they will implement Resolution 9A on 24 November. Under such constraints, the Premiership questioned whether the meeting would serve any purpose. However, they have agreed to attend, not with representatives from all 12 clubs, but with a negotiating party of four.

Meanwhile the Rob Andrew plan can be fought over without its eponymous hero. England's most decorated stand-off has resigned from Club England, accusing the RFU of "reneging" on the agreement. "It's totally unreasonable for a business to wait six months for the implementation of a plan which has been approved," Andrew said. "It's causing extreme financial difficulty."

The RFU, who have given a payment of £1.2m to the Premiership to "ease cash-flow problems", have just announced record profits of £14.5m. Whereas the professional clubs are losing money, the game at national level is healthier than ever.

When he presided over the Dallaglio affair, Sir Oliver came to a neat compromise - a fine but no ban. As a facilitator he has no such powers, but over the tea and biscuits he can attempt to crack a few heads together. The Premiership will not accept two-up, two-down but there is a compromise of one-up, one-down in place of a play-off, even though EFDR say they have compromised enough.

Aside from the players, no one has emerged with credit since the domestic game became synonymous with farce in its lurch to professionalism. Walkinshaw and company were quite ruthless in ditching two of their stricken colleagues, Richmond and London Scottish, when it suited them to cut the league to 12, yet now they are hell-bent on protectionism. Last season Rotherham were promoted, through a play-off, and they earned it. But nobody in the Premiership relishes a visit to a club who, apart from being off the beaten track, have second-class facilities.

There are probably only two clubs, Worcester and Leeds, who have either the clout or the ambition to make the Premiership and either, or both, in terms of geography and facilities, would bring something to the table. In a mercenary world a swap between Worcester and Rotherham looks attractive. As for Duckworth, he has his own agenda. If Worcester won the Second Division this season why shouldn't they take their chances in a play-off?

Then there's the role of the governing body, who have failed to govern. The RFU commissioned the Andrew plan but have been completely frustrated in their attempts to unite the divisions and close the deal. Their own council, who should be concerned with the structure of the season, have poked their noses into the élite end, which is a million miles removed from the affairs of the vast majority of members.

EFDR may yet be forced into a breakaway they say they don't want and which would leave them, and their international players, isolated. A final option for the owners is that, like Sir John Hall at Newcastle, they could just walk away.

Few expect Sir Oliver to bring order to the mad hatter's tea party, but unless somebody swallows a slice of humble pie there will be no jam tomorrow for anybody.

Three-cornered fight: How rugby's warring parties square up. Interviews by Tim Glover

LT COL GRAHAM LILLEY - ARMY REPRESENTATIVE ON RFU COUNCIL

Unless the clubs reach agreement we will implement two-up, two- down, the resolution passed at the annual meeting in the summer. What 99.9 per cent of people in the game are saying to the élite is that if you can't make up your minds we'll make them up for you.

The last five years have been absolute bloody chaos. The dollar came in the front door and common sense went out the back. When the game went professional they rushed in like Gadarene swine. The world went mad. We wanted a pause but nobody would listen. I used to play for Bedford and look what happened to them. The whole thing has been like pole vaulting over mouse turds. A lot of stuff is lost in the noise, old chum, but we do represent all the constituent bodies. Even the Premiership in soccer accept relegation and promotion.

We are ridiculed as old farts but there are some pretty joined-up people on the Council with good day jobs who love the game. It's rather like the Army. We are fighting for a democracy although we don't run one.

People like Sir John Hall and Frank Warren came in with an unrealistic vision. We all looked at each other and thought they were barking mad. A lot of the problems of the élite are self-imposed.There are some large egos lurking with some pretty large overdrafts.

Although the Andrew plan was approved, since then lots of bits have changed. We have been forced to concentrate on the top one per cent, but there's another 2,999 clubs out there.

The reason we want all of the Premiership to meet with the facilitator is that if they don't, the necessary two-thirds majority to pass a decision cannot be reached. They will have to agree with the rest of us. The annual meeting represents our members and if we did not take any action we would be damned for acquiescing to big business. We have been farting around for so long. We want an agreed solution.

TOM WALKINSHAW - CHAIRMAN OF EFDR; OWNER OF GLOUCESTER

We are not going to have two of our clubs relegated. We need stability, not people getting shot automatically. There will be no more winding up. We've gone from franchises to a five-year ring-fencing to two years with a play-off and automatic relegation if the same club finish bottom for two seasons running. We were asked to buy into the RFU vision and we signed the Andrew plan. The RFU management board are committed to it but the Council have done a 180-degree turn. You can't run a business that way.

We are the ones investing huge amounts for the good of domestic and international rugby. We shouldn't be involved in this argument. It's between the Union and the Second Division. If the Second Division don't want to go into a play-off, that's their business.

What has become apparent is that the professional game needs professional management. It is not a funfair or a lottery. The Union need to look at internal restructuring. They have full-time officials, then they say, "Sorry, we don't have any authority, you'll have to talk to the Council". Everything is being put back into the dark ages. The turnover of a professional club is £3m-£5m. We are paying more to our physio than it costs to run a junior amateur club, yet these people are treating us like schoolchildren.

We shouldn't be championing this plan. Fran Cotton should be raising the standard and charging up the hill. I don't know why he's also involved with the Reform Group. We have two different scenarios here and both seem to be headed by the same guy. He should get off the fence and help to deliver his vision.

Within our power we will implement the plan and give the meeting with the facilitator a go. If the guy can broker a deal, fine. A small delegation can achieve more than having 30 people in a room shouting at each other. Now if you'll excuse me I have to go and earn a crust to pay for Gloucester.

FRAN COTTON - CHAIRMAN, CLUB ENGLAND; PRESIDENT, REFORM GP

Together the Union and the clubs can be a massively strong force. England have never exploited their true potential. If we win the World Cup everyone will benefit. To do that we need a joint partnership. We don't want a Bernie Ecclestone in rugby.

I worked with Rob Andrew for six months on the plan and we were responsible for its presentation to the Council, who approved it. However, I warned Tom Walkinshaw that if the Premiership did not reach agreement by the annual meeting, there would be a problem. Once again they prevaricated and sure enough the resolution was passed proposing two-up, two-down. It was amended to give the First and Second Divisions time to reach agreement. The RFU can't ignore the wishes of their membership.

I've been all over the country selling the blueprint. I've attended 34 meetings and travelled 6,500 miles. Ask Tom what he's been doing. He's been busy on the Formula One circuit. I've never sat on a fence in my life. There's no conflict between Club England and the Reform Group. We're trying to evolve running an amateur game with the élite. TheReform Group support the Andrew plan and were responsible for the RFU appointing a chief executive. Tom never wanted the Andrew plan. He has spent the last seven months hoping it would go away.

The structured season has got to serve both club and country. Rugby league has killed off the international game in their sport. Our goal has always been to make England the strongest team possible and that means clubs and the union working together.

Tom says he wants the Andrew plan implemented, but which one? He's changed it 26 times. The two sides are so entrenched. We're in a bit of a mess. If two-up, two-down is introduced, EFDR will have to abide by the regulations. Let's hope the wisdom of Sir Oliver Popplewell prevails.

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