Lower division clubs combat elite breakaway

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The Independent Online

The second tier of English rugby is to be restructured, but it will not allow the game's élite to break away without a fight. What was Premiership Two and National Leagues One and Two are to come under the guidance of a single body as the 15-man code continues to adapt to the professional game.

The second tier of English rugby is to be restructured, but it will not allow the game's élite to break away without a fight. What was Premiership Two and National Leagues One and Two are to come under the guidance of a single body as the 15-man code continues to adapt to the professional game.

They will now be known as the National Divisions - incorporating National Clubs One, Two and Three - and the group will allow English Second Division Rugby and the National Clubs Association to look after their interests, which include automatic promotion.

Although one promotion place and a play-off are underpinned in the Mayfair Agreement, signed two years ago, there have been suggestions that the top-flight clubs are to turn their backs on that pledge. It is believed that just one play-off place will be offered, as happened last season, when Rotherham went up by virtue of their two-legged victory over Bedford in May.

Negotiations are continuing, although it is unlikely that the most ambitious clubs outside the top flight, Leeds and Worcester, will abandon their cause without a strong legal fight. "This represents a positive step forward and there is a common determination to work towards goals which meet the objectives of all interested parties," said the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Francis Baron.

The new National Divisions will give their full support to the county championship for the next three seasons, with the intention of playing the competition in a four-week block after the league season has finished.

The Irish back-row forward Dion O'Cuinneagain is expected to be out for three months after breaking two bones in his wrist. O'Cuinneagain, who captained Ireland during last year's World Cup but then lost his place, suffered the injury in training with his club, Ballymena.

The Swiss company Zurich Financial Services are the new Premiership sponsors. They will pay £15m over the next three years to back the competition, which will be known as the Zurich Championship.

South Africa are preparing a full-frontal assault on Australia's World Cup-winning stand-off Stephen Larkham as they attempt to halt their losing streak in Saturday's Tri-Nations showdown with the Wallabies. Larkham's opposite number, Braam van Straaten, hinted that Larkham and his half-back partner, George Gregan, could be in for a rough ride.

Nick Mallett, the Springbok coach, has already singled out the pair for special treatment. "The most dangerous [players] are Gregan and Larkham. They lift the whole Australian side when they play well - they're the key elements," said Mallett. "Without halves of the calibre of Gregan and Larkham, the Australian side wouldn't be as good."

Although Van Straaten will face Larkham in a Test for the first time, he claimed he already knew how to deal with him. "You need to be aggressive in the tackle and rough him up a bit," he said. "In the [Super 12] game against the Auckland Blues, he was roughed up and changed his whole game, he started missing kicks. We'll just rough him up a bit and see what happens."

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