The build-up to next month's Six Nations opener between Wales and England in Cardiff will be quite hot enough without World Cup issues adding to the temperature, but it now seems certain that Twickenham will be drawn into a developing row between the Premiership clubs and the governing body in Cardiff. Welsh Rugby Union leaders have been spoiling for a fight over access to Test players based on the far side of the Severn and they upped the ante at the weekend by dismissing any possibility of direct negotiations with the clubs.
Under International Rugby Board rules, clubs are not obliged to release imported players to their national teams more than 35 days before a World Cup tournament, and for a number of reasons – some to do with player welfare, others to do with pure sporting politics – the Premiership brigade have threatened to stick rigidly to the letter of the law. As the 2011 global gathering starts in New Zealand on 9 September, this would prevent the likes of the Saracens centre Gavin Henson, the Wasps No 8 Andrew Powell and the Sale scrum-half Dwayne Peel preparing properly for Welsh warm-up matches in early August.
Premier Rugby Ltd, the clubs' umbrella organisation, has reached its own agreement with the England hierarchy – Martin Johnson, the red-rose manager, is guaranteed all the access he could possibly need – but has no formal arrangement with any other nation. It could, if it so wished, make life complicated for the Welsh, but there are no signs from Cardiff that the WRU is willing to negotiate. Quite the opposite, with WRU spokesmen insisting there can be no discussions below governing body level.
As a result, the new Rugby Football Union chief executive, John Steele, is heading for the first diplomatic emergency of his tenure. The former Northampton coach, currently finishing a wide-ranging review of the Twickenham staffing structure, will be forced to address the access issue before the Six Nations ends in mid-March.Reuse content