The Rugby Football Union, determined to maintain civil relations with the top-flight Premiership clubs, will attempt to minimise the fall-out from the latest political upheaval by challenging the nakedly protectionist regulations surrounding next year’s home World Cup, which prevent major domestic matches being staged during the tournament.
Ian Ritchie, the Twickenham chief executive, said on Wednesday that the leading teams should be able to play league games when the global competition moves into its knockout stage and intends to lobby hard on the issue.
“Do we understand the impact on clubs who are asked to shut down for significant periods of time? Yes, we get it,” he said, when asked about the state of play on compensation negotiations that remain unresolved and threaten to overshadow the build-up to the big event, now just a year away.
“We could reduce the amount of time involved by having Premiership rugby being played after the pool stage, when the gaps between World Cup fixtures grow longer. If thousands of rugby supporters are here in the country, why wouldn’t they want to go and watch top-class games of rugby? We need to be positive and pragmatic and get this sorted.”
When the RFU, then a very different beast to the one currently run by the astute Ritchie, signed the hosting agreement, it effectively agreed to provide a “clean window” for the six-week tournament.
The Premiership clubs, far from satisfied by the governing body’s initial compensation offer and thoroughly hacked off at what they consider to have been a lack of consultation from the outset, upped the ante last week by warning that in the absence of an acceptable financial deal, they would press on with their fixtures regardless.
Ritchie, in no mood to destabilise what he described as a relationship built on “collaboration and co-operation” and in no hurry to tie himself into another long dispute so soon after breaking the logjam over the winding down of the Heineken Cup and the creation of a new template for the European club game, said he would be pressing the case for a relaxation of the rules with the International Rugby Board.
“This is not in our gift: the IRB could say ‘no’,” he admitted. “However, I’m sympathetic to the idea. We want our clubs to be successful, because they are fundamental to the serious and far-sighted agenda we have for the sport in England.”
Meanwhile, the leading referees in the country want to cut back on their use of television match officials when the new league campaign season begins this weekend.
Tony Spreadbury, the former international official who now runs the RFU refereeing department, acknowledged that there were far too many breaks for “eye in the sky” analysis last term – not least in the Premiership final between Northampton and Saracens, which was effectively decided off the pitch rather than on it.
“There has been a tendency for referees to say, ‘We’d better check this’ and ‘we’d better check that’,” Spreadbury remarked. “We want none of that now. We want to see as many decisions as possible being made on the field. It’s a difficult balance to strike because we want all decisions to be absolutely right, but we think we can take some positive steps on this issue.”
Interestingly, Spreadbury revealed plans to make a sports psychologist available to those referees who find themselves at the centre of controversy and lose confidence as a result – a syndrome that was all too prevalent last season. “It’s a difficult job out there and it’s getting harder,” he said. “If people feel they might benefit from this kind of support, I want them to have it.”