High noon again for the HQ 'cartel'

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The Independent Online

The stand-off between England's Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union has reached zero tolerance. English First Division Rugby, the clubs' negotiating body, have issued an ultimatum and the deadline is midday tomorrow: high noon.

The stand-off between England's Premiership clubs and the Rugby Football Union has reached zero tolerance. English First Division Rugby, the clubs' negotiating body, have issued an ultimatum and the deadline is midday tomorrow: high noon.

Having lost patience over the RFU's failure to implement the Rob Andrew Plan, EFDR are in effect threatening unilateral action. "We have notified the RFU at the game's HQ at Twickenham that in the event that substantial progress is not made by noon on Monday, then EFDR intend to implement the principles of the Andrew Plan as negotiated with the RFU's management team in so far as they're able to do so," a statement issued on Friday said.

It is not quite the shoot-out at the OK Corral promised by the Bristol chief executive, Nick de Scossa, who indicated secession. Nevertheless, the situation is now critical. The main reason the RFU and the clubs have not signed the Andrew Plan is the seemingly intractable problem of promotion and relegation.

EFDR and the RFU want a play-off at the end of the season between the bottom club in the Premiership and the champions of National League One. Cecil Duckworth, the owner of Worcester, the chairman of National League One and a member of the RFU Council, wants automatic promotion and relegation. One of the results of the impasse is that the Premiership clubs have not yet received a penny of the £1.8m promised each of them by the RFU under the Andrew Plan.

"I'm just amazed that some of the clubs haven't gone belly-up," Brian Kennedy, the man behind Sale, said. "The cash-flow must be horrendous. We don't want to split from the Union but we want them to deliver the Andrew Plan. We have now reached the stage where everybody's being damaged.

"National League One believe they are putting such a financial strain on the Premiership that they will force us into agreeing to their terms. This gets our backs up and lulls them into a sense of security they don't have. The poor old RFU are in the middle. If they fulfil their obligation on funding then we'll sit down and talk about National League One, but there will be no shifting on promotion and relegation. We think we have been reasonable. We can't build a business with the fear of relegation."

There is no sign of Duckworth backing down. He has taken the matter to the Office of Fair Trading, claiming the Premiership clubs have "distorted the market by trying to operate a cartel".

Yesterday the self-made millionaire also said he was considering legal action. "The Premiership clubs are using their dominant power to control the rest of us. It would make it impossible for us to operate. We can't accept a play-off. It would be meaningless because of the disparity between the clubs. The Premiership sides get £1.8m, we get £200,000."

At the moment, aside from the tedious negative publicity with which the game is surrounding itself, nobody is getting anything.

"The RFU recognise the necessity of all clubs having access to the very top of the game," Brian Baister, chairman of the management board, said. "But at the same time we recognise the Premier clubs will be asked to make significant financial investment in their stadiums to attract families to the game. Such investment requires a degree of certainty and stability, and the RFU believe the proposal to National League One clubs provides a realistic and balanced solution to the issues."

At a time when the England football team can't score a goal and England's rugby internationals against Australia and South Africa at Twickenham next month are sell-outs, it is incredible that after five years of squabbling the various parties in the game still can't find a way of working as a team.

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