First Division clubs turn down South African offers

The dream of a quick rise to the Premiership is not proving easy to fulfil
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Another week, another round of cross-hemisphere cloaks and daggers. Pencil in 11 June as the date on which more might be revealed from Twickenham HQ. This is when a formal proposal from one of the South African consortiums looking for a springboard into English club rugby is likely to be tabled to the Rugby Football Union.

That consortium have a working title of London Tribe, but Johann Rupert and his fellow millionaires will need to consider a change of name as well as a stadium in their plan to purchase a club and uproot them to the capital.

London Tribes RFC have been in existence for around nine years, and run a Merit Table team, with 40 to 50 players evenly split between British and expat South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders. They rent a pitch at the Richmond Athletic Ground and their secretary, Martin Black, said he was not surprised at the consortium's choice of name. "When we're looking for fixtures, people think we're bigger than we really are," said Black. "We would welcome an association with them with open arms." A more serious hurdle lies in the apparent lack of any takers at National League One level, one below the promised land of the Zurich Premiership.

Wakefield were favourites to cash in, as their fate is writ large. Four men - Peter Bulless, Phil Hodson, Michael Oughtred and John Waind - are seeking repayments of loans. "The four directors said at Christmas they would provide funding until the end of the season, on a loan basis, and they want it back," said Wakefield's president, Don Beaumont. "We will have to see what happens with the consortium. We are just waiting and hoping."

Wakefield's relegation from National One, while worsening their financial predicament with a decrease in central funding from £190,000 to £65,000, may have cooled the interest from London Tribe. The same applies to Manchester. More than half of the National One clubs have been contacted, but Bristol and Orrell publicly snubbed the offer, and Bedford, London Welsh, Coventry, Henley, Exeter, Birmingham/Solihull, now rebranded as Pertemps Bees, and Otley are thought to have followed suit privately at a board meeting of First Division Rugby on Wednesday.

Among those yet to have been approached are the two sides promoted from National Two, Sedgley Park and Nottingham, and the powers of the South-west, Plymouth Albion and Penzance & Newlyn. A bid for Wimbledon further down the leagues was rebuffed earlier this year. "There doesn't seem to be any imminent prospect of this affecting a National One club next season," said Geoff Cooke, chief executive of FDR. "But we take the view that if it does happen, there's nothing we can do about it."

The RFU are set to give a boost to London Tribe and the second group, London South Africa, by making a variation to the International Board regulation on changing a club's home ground. This would allow a club to relocate within a constituent body - usually a county - without RFU consent. So London Tribe could buy, say, Henley in Oxfordshire and move it to the Kassam Stadium.

The brawn drain to the UK, with the South African RFU dropping their ban on selecting foreign-based players, should ensure no shortage of stars if the venture gets off the ground. London Tribe's front men include former Bok captain Bob Skinstad, whose agents handled the moves north of a host of Boks, including Percy Montgomery, Jaco van der Westhuyzen, Andre Vos and Cobus Visagie.

Meanwhile, the second consortium are fishing in less exalted waters. London South Africa have applied for membership of the Surrey county RFU. "London South Africa RFC would be a Section Three member of Surrey," said John Vale, the union's honorary secretary. "A Section One club is a full member of the RFU, playing a minimum 20 games a year." If accepted, London South Africa would at best be able to gain entry to the English leagues at Level Five, four promotions away from the Premiership. But they could play attractive one-off fixtures along the lines of another Section Three member of Surrey, the Barbarians.

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