Madejski row raises groundsharing fears

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The Independent Online

Rugby union has not heard the last of yesterday's postponed Guinness Premiership match between London Irish and Saracens at a waterlogged Madejski Stadium in Reading, partly because the game will have to be repositioned somewhere in a horribly crowded programme and partly because of widespread dissatisfaction at the way the fixture was called off.

Ashley Rowden, the referee, was placed under considerable pressure to make the decision because Reading FC were concerned that any rugby activity on a sodden surface would threaten tonight's rescheduled FA Cup tie with Burnley. Rowden has submitted a report to Premier Rugby, which runs the top-flight professional club game in England, and the Rugby Football Union's refereeing hierarchy. Details have not been divulged - Rowden himself was in full "no comment" mode yesterday - but no one on the rugby side of the divide was happy at the chain of events.

London Irish, who have a groundshare agreement until 2010 and are negotiating an extension, are playing the diplomatic card, but there is no disguising the anger of those who believe the football club acted beyond its brief by demanding the game be postponed. Rowden, who made a 9.30am inspection, had legitimate concerns over the state of the surface and the prospect of more rain. He was more troubled by a feeling of being railroaded.

The FA Cup tie had been called off 10 minutes before kick-off the previous day, after which Steve Coppell, the Reading manager, expressed his displeasure at the continuing groundshare arrangement. "Obviously, I'd be happier if there wasn't a rugby club sharing the ground," he said. "You don't need a tremendous surface to play rugby, but you do need a fairly flat pitch, hopefully with a bit of grass on it, to play football." In other words, keep those rugger-buggers off my field.

Irrespective of what the Exiles may say in public, the incident will raise concerns over the nature of groundshare deals - over who holds primacy of tenure and how the relationship works when the two sports enter conflict-of-interest territory. Five Premiership teams - London Irish, Saracens, Wasps, Bristol and Sale - play their rugby at football stadiums (although Bristol's Memorial Ground is traditionally a union venue), and while each arrangement differs in its fine detail, there is widespread concern that football tells rugby what to do whenever it suits. There is even greater concern, particularly among the refereeing fraternity, that officials find themselves at the sharp end of such disputes.

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