Clubs and RFU square up for fight

Premiership teams' plan to switch to 28-match format likely to spark new dispute
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Relations between England's elite professional clubs and the Rugby Football Union, never entirely friendly at the best of times, will come under increased strain today when talks begin over the Premiership fraternity's plan to weather the credit crunch and associated crises by expanding next season's league programme by six matches to 28. "I'm anticipating a warm welcome," admitted the clubs' principal negotiator, Mark McCafferty, diplomatically declining to reveal whether he had been fitted for an asbestos suit.

"We know we're making a big call here, but doing nothing is not an option," continued the chief executive of Premier Rugby Ltd, the top-flight teams' umbrella organisation. "If we can't reach an agreement, it will be time for Plan B – and there is no Plan B. All we could do is ask the current shareholders to put their hands in their pockets and pull out even more money. The train can't keep travelling in that direction: these people have been affected by the downturn like everyone else. At least half our clubs expect to make operating losses as it is."

The expansion plan, lopsided as it is in its attempt to give teams a more regular flow of home fixtures, has met with a lukewarm response from players and supporters, as well as leading RFU figures, who have their own ideas for a "development" competition to replace the soon to be defunct Anglo-Welsh Cup. (One of the sticking points is likely to be the fact that the governing body has already sold the television rights for this new tournament – a move some club chairmen consider to have been just a little cheeky). However, McCafferty was at his persuasive best yesterday as he defended the move to a 28-match format, under which teams would play half their rivals on three occasions rather than two.

"It's not perfect – we appreciate that," he said. "We know we'll be in for a lot of criticism if we move away from the traditional model. But we've had a problem with our basic business foundations for a long time now, and that problem is the lack of fixture continuity, without which it is very difficult to build an audience. Some clubs go four weeks, sometimes six weeks, without a meaningful home game and it is something we must address – even more so now that the economic climate has taken a turn for the worse.

"Yes, we could have given ourselves extra matches by moving from a 12-team league to a 14-team format, but that would have meant spreading our income more ways – not an indulgence clubs can consider just at the moment. An expansion of European competition? Our current share of European monies is 24 per cent, as opposed to the 100 per cent we take from the Premiership. As for the proposed new competition, that would generate tens of thousands of pounds, not hundreds of thousands."

If Premier Rugby's plan is sanctioned – a decision is expected from the newly operational Professional Game Board at its meeting on 12 March – it will remain in place for a minimum of three years. McCafferty could not promise that the league would revert to a simple home-and-away arrangement the moment things started picking up on the financial front. "We can't keep chopping and changing," he said.

Even if the RFU is of a mind to support the Premier Rugby proposals, there will have to be a thorough examination of the potential for player "burnout". Leading England internationals have been going down like ninepins under the current system, to the extent that Martin Johnson, the national manager, has been forced to summon a platoon of reinforcements to his training camp in Portugal.

Steffon Armitage, the London Irish flanker, has travelled to the Algarve as a fully fledged member of the England elite squad – the result of Lewis Moody's latest injury, a broken ankle suffered in training at Leicester last week. Joe Worsley of Wasps, a 50-cap veteran, was also summoned after Michael Lipman, the Bath captain, was concussed during his club's Heineken Cup draw with Toulouse on Sunday.

Others call-ups included the World Cup-winning lock Ben Kay – a replacement for the stricken Tom Palmer – and the uncapped wing Matt Banahan, in for Ugo Monye of Harlequins, who has a back injury.