RFU shake-up fails to impress

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The Independent Online

Less than five months into the cosy new world of English rugby politics, where the governing body and the clubs slap each other heartily on the back while singing from the same hymn sheet, a radical plan to establish a football-style "championship" format aimed at transforming the ho-hum Second Division into something far more meaningful is causing no end of trouble.

The Rugby Football Union wants to make National League One a fully professional concern, cutting the number of teams from 16 to 12 and giving the leading second-tier teams four places in a revamped Anglo-Welsh competition involving all the major sides from both sides of the Severn. This, the union says, would give the English game two divisions of full-time players to rival the system in France, where the senior Top 14 tournament is underpinned by a thriving league of ambitious, highly motivated clubs.

Yesterday, the plans were enthusiastically trumpeted by the great and good of Twickenham. Unfortunately for them, the counterblast was not long in coming. Both Premier Rugby Ltd, the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation, and First Division Rugby, which represents the League One teams, expressed their strong opposition to the move.

Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman who was at one time a flag-waver for the old amateur game and viewed the growth of professional club rugby with considerable suspicion, announced his keen support for the development, confirming that the governing body was offering the Second Division an increase in central funding from £1.65m to £2.3m, with another £1m coming from PRL. "That significant investment, coupled with more television coverage under the new Sky Sports contract, will give the clubs more financial security and create a vibrant and viable structure to take the game forward," he said, adding that the proposals would be discussed by the union's council on Friday.

Last night, FDR confirmed that the idea had already been rejected by a two-thirds majority of its membership. "We've laid out to the RFU council our objections to these proposals and why we believe it would be financial suicide for our clubs to accept them," said Geoff Irvine, the FDR chairman. "We don't understand why the RFU is in such a mad rush to try to force through a restructuring, particularly in such challenging economic times. Council should ask for common sense to prevail and for proper and measured consultation to take place."

Irvine's displeasure was echoed by the PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty, who complained bitterly that the new Professional Game Board, set up under the agreement between the union and the elite clubs in July, was being bypassed in the discussion. "New competitions cannot be forced through unilaterally against the wishes of the proposed participants," he said. "It's a nonsense."

Meanwhile, the Wallabies arrived in London yesterday following their narrow victory over Italy on Saturday. Not all of them were in the best of health: Berrick Barnes, their brilliant young midfielder, was hobbling around with damaged knee ligaments that will keep him out of the rest of the autumn tour. Nevertheless, the Australian had one or two thoughts on this weekend's meeting with England – particularly the contest between the two outside-halves, Danny Cipriani and Matt Giteau.

"Cipriani is obviously a talent," said the Queenslander. "He's a young guy with a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he has the opportunity now to set himself up for the next 10 years. He carries himself pretty confidently, but one of the hardest things for him is the amount of pressure on him. He'll come up against some really good outside-halves in the next couple of weeks: Matt, then Dan Carter of New Zealand. They will give him, and everyone else, an indication of where he is."

All 22 of the England players who participated in the victory over the Pacific Islanders last weekend emerged unscathed. The Sale back Mathew Tait, who missed the match, was back in camp yesterday after being declared fit to resume training.