Premier clubs back down but dispute rages on

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The Independent Online

The noxious waters of English rugby politics grew more poisonous still yesterday as the two sides in the longest-running conflict since the 100 Years War, the Rugby Football Union and the 12 Zurich Premiership clubs, hurled financial figures at each other in an attempt to justify their entrenched positions. RFU sources insisted the amount owed to each top-flight team was only a fifth of the £600,000 figure bandied around by the club owners, but those claims were instantly ridiculed by the Premiership contingent.

The noxious waters of English rugby politics grew more poisonous still yesterday as the two sides in the longest-running conflict since the 100 Years War, the Rugby Football Union and the 12 Zurich Premiership clubs, hurled financial figures at each other in an attempt to justify their entrenched positions. RFU sources insisted the amount owed to each top-flight team was only a fifth of the £600,000 figure bandied around by the club owners, but those claims were instantly ridiculed by the Premiership contingent.

Every bit as ridiculous was the sight of the clubs backing down from their latest threat to break away from the RFU and launch their own competitions, as articulated by senior figures from Bristol on Thursday evening. While English First Division Rugby, the clubs' negotiating body, did indeed impose a deadline of noon on Monday for the RFU to implement their side of the Rob Andrew plan - that is to say, start paying up - it was merely a tactic to stoke up the heat on the RFU as it pursues an agreement on promotion and relegation with the increasingly recalcitrant Second Division teams.

The Premiership clubs reserve the right to strike out on their own next season, but they remain confident that Francis Baron, the RFU chief executive, will soon come under pressure from his colleagues to release the purse strings. That pressure could be applied as early as next Wednesday, when the union's management board meets to consider the current stand-off. Budge Rogers, widely considered to be one of the most able RFU presidents of the modern era, will play a central role in preventing a fresh outbreak of damaging public hostilities.

"We are quite open about this," one leading EFDR figure said yesterday. "We are trying to pressurise the union into securing a formal agreement on promotion with the Second Division clubs along the lines suggested by the Union itself a fortnight ago. As Premiership clubs, we can deliver everything demanded of us under the Andrew Plan, which was, after all, accepted as policy by Twickenham last April. In return, we expect to see the Union recognise its own obligations under that agreement and start paying what they owe. We are the only losers in all this because as we speak, the one outstanding item is a thing called money."

Discontent among some of the hard-line owners is now reaching boiling point. "Those of us who argued in favour of the Andrew Plan, rather than following the British League route proposed by Tom Walkinshaw [the Gloucester owner] are feeling just a little embarrassed," one Premiership chief executive said. "At the moment, everything Tom warned us about is coming true."

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