Have-nots face a play-off ultimatum

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The stand-off between the Premiership clubs in England and the pretenders in the tier below enters a critical phase tomorrow when the Rugby Football Union attempt to broker a deal between the parties. Failure to do so could result in the matter being settled in the law courts and the game being split from top to bottom.

The stand-off between the Premiership clubs in England and the pretenders in the tier below enters a critical phase tomorrow when the Rugby Football Union attempt to broker a deal between the parties. Failure to do so could result in the matter being settled in the law courts and the game being split from top to bottom.

"There's a lot of distrust," Cecil Duckworth, the man principally responsible for stalling the Rob Andrew Plan, said. Duckworth, who has invested £6m in Worcester in the five years since rugby lost its amateur status, taking them to the brink of the Premiership, is adamant that the élite league should be subject to promotion and relegation. It is a battle he is likely to lose. The have-nots may kick and scream, but the haves are not prepared to see a change in the status quo.

Under the original terms of the Andrew Plan there was to be no disruption to the Premiership for three years, ensuring a degree of stability. English First Division Rugby (EFDR) agreed to resurrect a play-off between their bottom club and the champions of National League One, a system which last season saw Rotherham promoted at Bedford's expense. Duckworth will tell the RFU at a meeting in Manchester tomorrow evening that this is unacceptable.

"If a club have battled to win the league why should they then have to prove themselves again in a play-off?" Duckworth asked. "It's a nonsense. Two go down from our division, and nobody would argue that that is unfair. All the Premiership clubs are doing is protecting themselves. The issue is vital, not just for the clubs outside the self-perpetuating élite but for the future of rugby." What Duckworth wants is one automatic promotion place plus a play-off. Not even Rotherham, who have risen through the ranks, are in favour of that.

One result of the deadlock is that the 12 Premiership clubs, by not signing on the dotted line of the Andrew deal, have not received the £1.8m due to each of them from the RFU, and they are feeling the pinch.

Rotherham, who visit Saracens today in search of their first victory, are relying on the patience of their bank manager. "Rotherham have learned the hard way," Howard Thomas, chief executive of EFDR, said. "When the carpet is whisked away your financial foundation becomes shaky. There have been some very tense negotiations but there is a momentum to find a solution."

The Premiership clubs are exasperated at the delay. It didn't help that the International Management Group, who were involved in the sale of media rights, have had their services dispensed with. It was felt their rate of commission was too high, and IMG have not been replaced. "We are starting to talk to the television companies about next season," Thomas said. "And we're looking for the best deal. I wouldn't rule anybody out." Sky have been the main player with their coverage of England's home internationals and the Premiership, but the BBC will also enter the bidding.

First the present impasse has to be sorted out, and Duckworth is threatening legal action. "Automatic promotion and relegation had been agreed, but that was changed because of the World Cup last year. I'm assured that the decision not to reintroduce it is invalid. On the legal side everything is in place, and I'm prepared to push the button." Even if EFDR agreed to the bottom two in the Premiership going into play-offs, Duckworth, chairman of National League One and a member of the RFU Council, would not accept.

"People say only one or two clubs are interested in joining the Premiership, but that's not true. There are a number of ambitious sides, including Leeds, Bedford, Exeter, Coventry, Birmingham and London Welsh. Some have better support and have invested more than a number of the Premiership outfits, who haven't spent a bean and who have simply moved their operations to soccer clubs. They're trying to maintain an artificial position.

"We want an expanding rugby world, not a contracting one. Professional sport is not like a normal business and there are a lot of senior people in the RFU who accept the cardinal principle of promotion and relegation. Anybody who can't live with that should go and buy a paper mill, not a rugby club."

There is a strong element of bluff and counter-bluff in the contest, and Duckworth is up against some extremely successful poker players in owners like Tom Walkinshaw of Gloucester, who is also chairman of EFDR, Nigel Wray of Saracens and Chris Wright of Wasps. The majority of Premiership clubs are run by businessmen who have put millions in, and they hold the trump cards. What Duckworth and his supporters will be faced with is a simple choice: accept a play-off and the Premiership will help to fund National League One. If not, there will be no financial support.

"We want funding from the RFU, not the Premiership," Duckworth insisted. The owners tend to believe that when push comes to shove, Duckworth will be standing alone. He will find out who his real friends are when he reports back to National League One on Wednesday.

The view is that few clubs have either the resources or the will to join a top tier which continues to be hampered by an inadequate fixture structure. "August was a poor month," Thomas admitted. "We were always very, very nervous about such an early start. The club game always sucks the hind tit. We are pushed from pillar to post by international rugby and we need better planning, with each country working together. We have got to get it right. Last year was the World Cup, this time the Lions tour. We can't have an excuse every year.

"EFDR have bought into the Rob Andrew Plan to create an élite base from which England can go on and win the World Cup. It is the RFU's vision and sometimes they forget that. We can't deliver it on our own. It is their responsibility to sell it and to work with the élite."

Duckworth and Worcester are hellbent on joining that élite. "We are operating in a vacuum," Duckworth said. "If there is no automaticpromotion there won't be an agreement."

The response of Walkinshaw and company is that if Worcester are good enough they should take their chance in a play-off. They will not deal Duckworth a new hand.