Peace dividend for players

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The Independent Online

The years of bickering in English rugby could just be over. Peace will be announced at Twickenham on Tuesday when the Rugby Football Union and their leading clubs shake hands on an eight-year agreement on the future of the game.

It is expected that in return for an acceptable distribution of income from central funds, the clubs will allow the RFU more control over the number of games international stars can play.

And, following today's revelation that English-qualified Henry Paul is to move to Gloucester with the backing of RFU cash, it seems that the dispute over cross-code moves is also at an end. Last autumn, Sale had to shell out in full for Jason Robinson's switch from Wigan after the Heywood Road side's Premiership rivals objected to the deal being backed by the governing body.

Robinson has since gone on to achieve international stardom with England and the Lions and, despite the fact that the Auckland-born Paul has appeared 25 times for New Zealand in the 13-man code, it seems certain that his representative future will be with Clive Woodward's Six Nations champions.

Woodward will also be delighted that an agreement has been sealed which will limit the number of matches his players will appear in. Lions skipper Martin Johnson admitted a number of his team-mates were being "held together by sticking plaster" following their defeat in the third Test in Sydney last weekend. With the next World Cup looming in just two years' time, Woodward will at least be comforted that he should have a relatively fresh group of players available.

"A whole range of issues has been addressed about both the club and international game," said Howard Thomas, acting chief executive of Premier Rugby, the umbrella body of the Premiership clubs.

"More detail will be unveiled next week, but it is fair to say that player welfare has been uppermost in our minds. We have already had two previous drafts of this agreement which have placed an upper limit on the number of matches for each player, so it is safe to assume we have adopted a similar position in this one.

Gloucester's owner, Tom Walkinshaw, said: "The major issues affecting the senior game have now been addressed and I believe that we will move forward together as long-term partners,"

The RFU's chief executive, Francis Baron, added: "While the RFU remains as the governing body for the entire game, the agreement creates a new joint-venture company, England Rugby, for the management of the professional game in this country.

"The RFU and Premier Rugby are in joint negotiations for the future broadcasting rights for English rugby and this agreement will hopefully enable a successful conclusion to these discussions."

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