Peace in cold war, heat in a new one

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The Independent Online

As the reconciliation between rugby's two codes develops into a mutual admiration society, the state of the Union remains disparate not to say desperate. In 1895 the northern clubs broke away from the Rugby Football Union over the question of players' compensation for time lost at work. In 1995 the game finally embraced professionalism, but the irony now is that it is England's Premiership clubs who have lost patience with the Union.

As the reconciliation between rugby's two codes develops into a mutual admiration society, the state of the Union remains disparate not to say desperate. In 1895 the northern clubs broke away from the Rugby Football Union over the question of players' compensation for time lost at work. In 1995 the game finally embraced professionalism, but the irony now is that it is England's Premiership clubs who have lost patience with the Union.

The 100 years war with rugby league is over, but a new front has opened up and if the RFU cannot resolve it another breakaway seems likely. The accusation from English First Division Rugby (EFDR) is that the RFU have not come to terms with professionalism. "Surely to God England wants to become a winning nation at something," Howard Thomas, EFDR's spokesman, said. "Why are we scared of success? If the RFU are not prepared to support the elite then we can go back to playing in front of a couple of hundred people with the national side again being dumped on by the southern hemisphere. We have more clubs, more players than anybody else. We should be winning world cups."

It was with the ultimate goal of ending the southern hemisphere's monopoly of the World Cup that the RFU established the Club England concept, headed by Fran Cotton, which, in turn, led to the Rob Andrew plan. EFDR bought into the plan, which is designed to develop the Premiership elite, but the agreement has been endangered by the insistence of the Second Division on automatic promotion and relegation.

"A small group of people are holding the entire game to ransom," Thomas said. "We are at one with the RFU, but if they can't deliver their own plan it means the governing body is incapable of governing and where that leaves us God only knows. We have made a number of compromises but the Second Division have not moved an inch."

If Thomas, the acting chief executive of EFDR, sounds like a man at the end of his tether then that is because he is. He will be leaving the post at the end of February after 27 months of unremitting hostility. "I'm the longest serving acting chief executive in rugby history," he said. "Rugby politics are very wearing and you need a thick skin."

One of the reasons why Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, and Brian Baister, chairman of the management board, have been frustrated in their attempts to close the deal with EFDR is the structure of the powerful RFU Council. It not only includes Cecil Duckworth, the chairman of the Second Division and the prime mover for automatic promotion and relegation, but covers the shires, the services and Cambridge and Oxford Universities. The rump of this body are what Will Carling would probably describe as "old farts".

"I would think that Francis Baron is incredibly frustrated," Thomas added. "Amateur people with amazing powers are debating the future of professional rugby in England. Should their views matter to the elite? If the RFU management board can't deliver policy where does that leave the game? We need strong leadership and we've got ostrich management. They haven't tried to sell the strategy to the game or to the Council. If we shifted any more we'd be breaking our agreement with the RFU. The top tier is extremely different from the rest but in this country we find it extremely difficult dealing with an elite concept. We like being great losers. On this issue the RFU has got to find a way. The stark choice is that if they fail to govern they should get out."

It is not only the Premiership clubs who are exasperated. Last week the RFU management board proposed an initiative to solve the impasse, inviting all 26 clubs in the top two divisions to a meeting with independent arbitrators, a sort of Acas for Twickenham. EFDR took a dim view and, although they said they would be represented at the talks, that was not good enough for the RFU Council. On Friday, in their strongest show of force yet, they insisted that all 12 Premiership clubs should be present "to ensure that any debate is fully representative of the Premiership". If the clubs are not individually represented, or if no agreement is reached, the council will introduce two-up two-down between Premiership and the Second Division.

That would be anathema to Tom Walkinshaw and his co-owners, who have offered a play-off between the bottom club and the Second Division champions. On the recommendation of the Sports Dispute Resolution Panel, the legal bigwig who will act as the facilitator is Sir Oliver Popplewell. He may need an asbestos suit.

So as one rift widens, another closes. Yesterday the England rugby league team played at Twickers, a historic first and the culmination of a week of unprecedented cross border co-operation. Bev Risman, the only man to play for the Lions in both codes, was at the opening of an exhibition at the Museum of Rugby, celebrating union and league. "Many great players have been written out of history because they went to rugby league," Jed Smith, the Museum curator said. "It's time this form of Stalinist revisionism came to an end."

Risman, who toured with the union Lions in 1959 and the GB league team in 1968, said: "I never thought it would take so long for the codes to come together. I predicted that by 1985 there would be one game but the league World Cup has led to closer links and more players will tread the sacred turf of Twickenham." The exhibition was opened by Joe Lydon, another league great who left union for the 13-man game 17 years ago after playing for England Under-19s. Lydon is now on the RFU payroll as manager of the Under-19s and the bricks are coming down faster than the Berlin Wall.

Ellery Hanley, whom Lydon played alongside at Wigan, has joined Clive Woodward's coaching staff; Swansea held a joint training session with the Wales league squad at St Helens (the union ground) and at Rugby School league made its debut 177 years after William Webb Ellis had started the ball rolling.

Jason Robinson is now inEngland's development squad, although Woodward predicted it would take him 12 months to acclimatise fully. This is 11 months longer than it took Tom Brown to learn the rules at Rugby School in 1830.

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