You might have thought relations between the Rugby Football Union and the Guinness Premiership clubs could only get better, but last week they got a whole lot worse. The mistrust between the parties is deafening. The RFU's decision to stage an extra Test in the autumn between England and New Zealand to celebrate the opening of the new £100m South Stand at Twickenham has gone down in Premier Rugby like a lead Zeppelin.
Not only do the clubs resent the addition to the schedule, they believe the timing of the announcement of the showpiece, which will set a crowd record of 83,000, was done deliberately to overshadow the Premiership's pride and joy, yesterday's final at Twickenham between Sale and Leicester.
"It was meant to detract from the biggest club game of the season," claimed Niels de Vos, the chief executive of Sale. "The same day [as the announcement] Premier Rugby had a board meeting and we couldn't respond. That's how petty it was. There was no need to announce it now. The timing was Machiavellian."
The consequences could be disastrous for England. For the match on 5 November, the All Black have been made an offer of $1.6m (£850,000), which they can't refuse. The clubs have been offered £1m, which they can refuse, and are considering the ultimate sanction of withdrawing their players. "As things stand, we won't release them," said De Vos. "There has been no consultation. The RFU have done a deal with the BBC and have already started selling tickets and hospitality, but if the top players aren't there they could be accused of misleading the public."
The RFU say England and New Zealand are committed to fielding strong sides, and that the Long Form Agreement requires players to be released. The clubs say the match is outside the "international window" and so not subject to the International Rugby Board's Regulation Nine, which provides for the automatic release of players. It could be another case for the lawyers.
"There is supposed to be a partnership but the RFU do things unilaterally," said De Vos, "and if we don't like it, tough. It's a mess. There's no rugby reason for the current stand-off. I suspect the end game is all about power. The RFU want to control the clubs and the players and run a production line for Test rugby. Their holy grail is central contracts but they missed the boat. Club rugby is thriving and we have a great record of producing England players. A strong Premiership will deliver the best England side."
To mount a worthy defence of the World Cup, the Red Rose brigade want more quality time with the players, but the clubs are sceptical. "Nobody listens to the players," said De Vos. "They don't want to spend weeks away from their clubs. Last August they were supposed to have a week at Bagshot but on the Monday they did nothing, on the Tuesday there was a photo-call and by Thursday they were back up the motorway. It was absurd. The club owners have invested £100m. No other business would be required to hand over its senior personnel so another body can make pots of money. It's a bizarre concept."
Even so, Premier Rugby are prepared to use the issue of access to players as a bargaining counter. Their Weston Plan will be debated with the RFU on Tuesday, and they are prepared to concede extra training days in return for more compensation and more control of the Heineken and Anglo-Welsh Cups, and the Lions and Barbarians.
The RFU have said that as other unions are involved in such matters, they are in no position to negotiate. They also said that over the next nine years the plan would cost them £40m above the current funding to Premier Rugby of £10m a year. The clubs say it would cost £18.6m, so not even the accountants can agree. The RFU have counterproposals of their own such as the creation of a top tier based on 16 franchised teams and the abandonment of promotion and relegation.
England, with their new coaching staff of Brian Ashton, John Wells and Mike Ford in place, play the Barbarians at Twickenham today before leaving for Australia, and even this fixture has become a political minefield. When the Baa-Baas, who were always a non-profit making concept, found the professional game tough going they signed a contract with Stephen Berrick, a barrister, to promote them. Berrick would pay the players in return for a share of the profits.
Last autumn the Barbarians were due to play South Africa at Twickenham but the IRB refused to sanction it. Berrick is suing the governing body for alleged restraint of trade. The IRB say they could not authorise the game since it was never brought to the table. Their view of such fixtures is that they should bring money back into the game rather than into the pockets of players who are already well paid.
Berrick's contract runs out this year and the clubs are eager to take it over, fill the Baa-Baas with Premiership players and play two games against England. The RFU note with surprise that the Weston Plan, which would also entertain a fourth autumn Test on an annual basis, raises no issues about player welfare.
It is the fourth Test against the All Blacks - England have two Tests against the Springboks and one against Argentina in November - that the clubs are threatening to blow sky-high in a scenario that has the whiff of the Gunpowder Plot. It could be the game that lights the blue touchpaper.
"Everyone knows we have yet to reach agreement with Premier Rugby but we're all grown-ups here so I very much hope common sense will prevail," said Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU. "We have offered a commercial package worth £1m to the clubs plus compensation to those who can show their league matches were affected by the live television. When the dust settles I'd like them to join us as enthusiastic participants in the match rather than snipe at us from the sidelines."
That was the season that was: Tim Glover picks the best and worst of Rugby 2005-06
Try Of The Season
The final round of the Premiership season, Gloucester v Wasps at Kingsholm. Ryan Lamb, the exciting young Gloucester stand-off, was inside his 22 but instead of kicking the ball downfield, he threw out a huge pass which allowed James Simpson-Daniel to run amok. He turned Lawrence Dallaglio inside out before releasing James Bailey and the right wing completed the breathtaking counter-attack. Kingsholm had never seen anything quite like it but then Gloucester, instead of pushing on and qualifying for the Premiership play-offs, made the fatal mistake of replacing Lamb, which allowed Wasps to deliver the sting.
Player Of The Season
Jason White, of Sale and Scotland, has been in compelling form for club and country throughout the campaign. A key signing for Sale in 2003, White is an integral member of a dynamic back row who have given the Sharks a presence and a cutting edge that previously had been conspicuous by its absence. Along with the Frenchman Sébastien Chabal, who is called "Sea Bass" by the Sale supporters, the Great White is one of the heaviest hitters in the game. His captaincy of Scotland, which played a big part in their revival, was another major plus.
Supporters Of The Season
Without question the red-shirted followers of Munster, who were suitably rewarded when their province finally lifted the Heineken Cup in that thrilling final against Biarritz last weekend. They managed to turn the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff into Limerick's infamous Thomond Park times ten. Thousands of them stayed in bed and breakfasts in the West Country and were forced to fork out £100 for taxis across the Severn Bridge when the inadequate rail services were caught completely by surprise. Those that could not make it to Cardiff enjoyed a massive street party during the final.
The Worst Of Signings
Andy Farrell, in a deal financed jointly by the Rugby Football Union and Saracens, was the big rugby league recruit who never got to dip his busted toe in the water at any point during the season, as much to Andy Robinson's frustration as Saracens'. We feel for him but he was not the only frustrated newcomer. Owen Finegan, the big Australian, joined Newcastle and became the invisible man and the same goes for Quinton Davids, an even bigger South African, who joined Gloucester and discovered he was actually required to jump in the line-out.
Biggest Wasted Overlap
It's a Heineken Cup quarter-final between the old rivals Leicester and Bath. The Tigers have forfeited the bear pit of Welford Road for the more financially rewarding Walkers Stadium of Leicester FC. Bath are down to 13 men and Andy Goode, with the cavalry lined up outside him and the Sioux nowhere to be seen, holds on to the ball and is grounded a couple of feet short of the line. Somehow Bath survived and went into a semi-final against Biarritz where the Basques outnumbered the Bathonians as much as the Munstermen outnumbered the Basques in the final.
Departure Of The Season
One minute Mike Ruddock was the celebrated coach of Wales, the next he was out of the door, leaving the Principality speechless and songless in the middle of their season. After winning a brilliant Grand Slam in the 2005 Six Nations Ruddock said that he was leaving his post for family reasons and was replaced by his skills coach, Scott Johnson. The Australian has since left to hone the Wallabies attack. Gareth Jenkins, the new man and former Llanelli Scarlets coach, says that from now on the on-field moves and calls will be made in the Welsh language, which will confuse not only the opposition but also any non-Welsh speakers in his squad.