Premiership plays football at numbers game

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The Independent Online

The World Cup is almost upon us, but the Guinness Premiership – firmly established as the leading domestic tournament in the game and envied by every major rugby nation with the single exception of France, who have a thriving league of their own – has no intention of hiding its light under a bushel. Senior officials believe average crowds for top-flight English club rugby will match those in football's Championship within the next 10 years and are confident of avoiding the financial inequality they believe will ultimately weaken the Premier League's grip on the sporting imagination.

Premiership teams currently operate within a salary cap of £2.2m, plus allowances for players affected by injury or called up for international duty. "We're under some pressure to raise the limit, because the bigger clubs are keen to strengthen their squads, but we'll probably stick with the principle of the salary cap because we want to ensure good competition, encourage pretenders to the throne and continue to see more than half our games being decided by a single score or less," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, at yesterday's tournament launch.

"We don't want a two-speed league of the kind we see in top-flight football these days. We want to ensure a fair and even distribution of central funds, rather than allow the strong to grow ever stronger. This is a point of issue between ourselves and the Rugby Football Union – we have competing philosophies – but with audiences up for the 10th successive year and every sign of another rise this coming season, I think our argument is a strong one."

Delegates from the two bodies will meet next week in an effort to strike a deal on a range of complex issues that have bedevilled the game since rugby first embraced professionalism 12 years ago. There is already agreement on the management of elite players, under which the England coaches and medical staff will have greater access to, and say over, who does what and when. There is even a consensus on the amount of money the RFU should pay from the central pot in return. But there is still an argument over how the cash will be distributed. "We're the sellers, they're the purchasers," McCafferty said. "It should be up to us."

After last year's row with the International Rugby Board over a proposed lengthening of the half-time break from 10 to 15 minutes, the Premiership will have its way when the new campaign begins with matches at Bath, Harlequins and Wasps a fortnight tomorrow. "We were prevented from doing it last season, just as we were prevented from introducing new rules to minimise the risks of games going to an uncontested scrum situation, but the IRB has agreed to sanction the 15-minute break on a trial basis," McCafferty confirmed.

Argentina have been forced to make a second change to their World Cup squad after the withdrawal of the wing Jose Nunez Piossek, who has a thigh injury. The Pumas, who open the tournament with a match against France in Paris a week today, have called in the centre Federico Martin Aramburu, who plays his club rugby in Perpignan.

Last week, the South Americans lost Martin Gaitan after the midfielder suffered a heart scare in the aftermath of a warm-up fixture against Wales in Cardiff. He was replaced by Hernan Senillosa.

There is an additional issue surrounding the No 8 Gonzalo Longo, who has problems with a leg muscle. He will miss the first match, but should be fit for the rest of the pool stage.

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