Premiership wrangle as clubs wait for money

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The Independent Online

There are two days to go before the start of what everyone agrees is the blue riband of England's club rugby competitions, but there is still no decision on automatic promotion and relegation to and from the Zurich Premiership.

There are two days to go before the start of what everyone agrees is the blue riband of England's club rugby competitions, but there is still no decision on automatic promotion and relegation to and from the Zurich Premiership.

That in turn means no cash is being paid out by Twickenham to the top 12 clubs as had been agreed under the Andrew Plan. To date the clubs have missed out on two monthly instalments, amounting to £300,000 of the £1.8m due to them.

"The agreement was that each club would receive £150,000 per month," explained Howard Thomas, chief executive of the English Rugby Partnership - of which English First Division Rugby, English Second Division Rugby and the Rugby Football Union are all members.

"Clubs should have received two payments, the first in July, the second earlier this month, but until this issue of automatic promotion and relegation is sorted out the money cannot be paid over. The main worry is the uncertainty. If the money is not forthcoming we may have to re-evaluate our position."

ESDR insisted, in a statement issued yesterday, that they will fight for the right to automatic promotion for one club and a play-off for the second-placed club in what is now known as National Division One.

ESDR is threatening to call an SGM if the RFU does not confirm that automatic promotion was agreed at this year's AGM in July and ratify it in the rule-book. Representatives of all three bodies were locked in discussions at Twickenham yesterday.

The question of automatic promotion and relegation was first raised in March when the Andrew Plan, drawn up under the aegis of the RFU, recommended a five-year moratorium in order to allow those clubs already in the Premiership to have time in which to build a sound financial base with which to improve their infrastructure and make progress on the development front.

In theory a very sound sentiment, but in acting in favour of an élite of 12 and the England national team and simultaneously to the exclusion of its constituent bodies left the RFU in danger of being accused of being unconstitutional, a question which an SGM would no doubt address.

Meanwhile, the sponsors also unveiled their particular baby, the Zurich Championship, the climax of the season, which will involve the top four finishers in the Premiership. The winners of this new knock-out competition for the crême de la crême will be known as the Champions; the Premiership title holders will be referred to as... well... the "Winners".

Dan Luger will probably not care either way. Fifteen months after leaving Harlequins the England wing makes his long-awaited debut for Saracens against Gloucester at Watford this Sunday. He is probably aware that it took cricket a hundred years to agree on promotion and relegation. Luger cannot wait that long.

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