Leading clubs agree to summit

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The Independent Online

The English Premiership clubs will, after all, attend a summit meeting with their Second Division brethren in an effort to solve a festering dispute over promotion and relegation that has sent half the sporting world into paroxysms of laughter and the other half to sleep. They will not, however, turn up en bloc, as envisaged by Brian Baister, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union. They intend to mandate a negotiating team of four, perhaps five, owners and chief executives to do their talking, and if the governing body objects... well, it can go jump in the lake.

The English Premiership clubs will, after all, attend a summit meeting with their Second Division brethren in an effort to solve a festering dispute over promotion and relegation that has sent half the sporting world into paroxysms of laughter and the other half to sleep. They will not, however, turn up en bloc, as envisaged by Brian Baister, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union. They intend to mandate a negotiating team of four, perhaps five, owners and chief executives to do their talking, and if the governing body objects... well, it can go jump in the lake.

Furthermore, the top-flight clubs, as represented by English First Division Rugby, will not countenance a two-up, two-down system from the end of the current season, irrespective of what sundry RFU council members might say.

This was made crystal clear yesterday when Tom Walkinshaw, the financial power behind Gloucester, and Peter Wheeler, Leicester's head honcho, conducted a state-of-political-play briefing in London.

"There is no point getting angry at the delay in implementing the measures approved under the Rob Andrew Plan last April, but a professional game needs professional management and it won't happen until there is an acceptance of the need for a major reorganisation of the decision-making process," said Walkinshaw, the EFDR chairman. "This is a business we're trying to run, not a fun fair, and because of the RFU's failure to get their own plan past their own council, the Premiership clubs are £750,000 out of pocket. We're back in the dark ages."

Walkinshaw reiterated that the current argument does not involve the Premiership clubs at all, apart from the fact that the impasse is costing the top-flighters a small fortune in central funding. "This is the RFU's own vision of the future we're trying to follow, not our own," he said, adding that Fran Cotton, the Club England chairman, should "get off the fence" and speak out on behalf of the Andrew Plan he himself helped to draw up.

Controversially, Cotton retains close links with the grass-roots Reform Group, who are fighting against the RFU's push for an end-of-season play-off system rather than automatic promotion from the Second Division. "We have two different scenarios here, and both seem to be headed up by the same guy," said Walkinshaw, shaking his head in bewilderment.

There were no such distractions in Wales, a rugby nation in good humour after a string of outstanding Heineken Cup performances. National coach Graham Henry drafted three uncapped players into his senior squad for the Test with Samoa in Cardiff on Saturday week: the Ebbw Vale tight forwards Iestyn Thomas and Deiniol Jones, and the Swansea lock James Griffiths. Their emergence ensured the bum's rush treatment for two established members of the Welsh heavy mob, Peter Rogers and Chris Wyatt, both of whom will play for a Wales XV against New Zealand A on the eve of the full international. Another casualty is the Cardiff wing Gareth Thomas, who does not feature in a squad of any description.

Happily, Swansea outside-half Arwel Thomas has forced his way back into Henry's reckoning after illuminating the cup scene with some virtuoso displays. He will square up to Neil Jenkins in a straight fight for the No 10 shirt.

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