Merger talk raises stakes for Bath visit to Bristol

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The Independent Online

Bristol believe they will attract a record-threatening crowd of 19,000-plus for their Premiership scrap with Bath at Ashton Gate next month – if there is a bigger draw than a derby fixture involving two sides who happen to be playing really well, it is one featuring two sides playing really badly – and if expectations are met, the future of professional rugby in what is meant to be a rugby city may yet be secured.

Malcolm Pearce, the Bath-based businessman who has lavished £9m on the Bristol cause since buying the club out of administration almost five years ago, could retrieve around 50 per cent of his expenditure from the plughole by flogging the entire concern to Firoz Kassam, the owner of Oxford United football club. There is a deal on the table and some of Pearce's closest advisers believe he should grab it with both hands and to hell with the Bristol sporting public, who have given him precious little support at the turnstiles.

But Pearce cares about his rugby and the offer of a permanent move to Ashton Gate, the home of Bristol City football club, with a 15 per cent holding in the stadium company attached, is making him think. The football club is known to be enthusiastic about a multi-code venture along the lines of those operating in Watford, Reading and Leeds, and increasing numbers of influential figures in Bristol believe a merger to be the most sensible way forward.

Many Bristol employees believe the move to Oxford to be a done deal – Pearce vehemently denies this – while others believe a more radical move is being planned: a merger between Bristol and Bath, with the new team playing at Ashton Gate.

This would solve the chronic accommodation problems affecting both teams – Bristol now rent their traditional home, the Memorial Ground, from Bristol Rovers, with whom they have a fractious relationship; Bath play at the council-owned Recreation Ground and have suffered repeated setbacks on the stadium development front. In addition, it would save the Premiership the torment of relegating one of its own.

Any merger would be bitterly opposed by the Bath trustees, who own 25 per cent of the club, and the vast majority of the 8,000 supporters who attend every home match. Yet if Bath finish bottom – along with Bristol, Newcastle, London Irish and Saracens, they are up to their chests in the relegation quicksand – a local link-up might be considered logical. Whatever happens, nothing will be decided until after 10 May, the final round of Premiership matches.

Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union will be astonished by their Australian counterparts' success in persuading the International Rugby Board to lift the £17m cap on host nation profits from this year's World Cup. The Wallabies will now pocket the first £11m plus 30 per cent of the remaining surplus. Last week, the RFU's bid for the 2007 event collapsed when the IRB imposed a drastic cut on host profits, thereby ensuring that England could not deliver on financial pledges to other unions.