Rebellion led by Leicester threatens England

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The Independent Online

Just 24 hours after a writ was served on the Rugby Football Union by Premier Rugby Limited seeking the payment to Wasps, Sale and Leicester of money that had been withheld because they were allegedly in breach of an agreement over the playing of their Lions too early in the Premiership season, the Tigers bared their fangs about a wider issue - central contracts. The RFU wants central contracts; the clubs do not.

The decision by the RFU to withhold the Lions payment, a sum of around £135,000, which includes money for Geordan Murphy, Leicester's Ireland international who went on the Home Unions tour to New Zealand, looks to be headed for the courts. And the clubs fear the issue about player release to England is also doomed to finish up as a long drawn-out court case, possibly in Europe.

Leicester are not alone in seeing a problem with a system which works well in Australia and New Zealand, but is as yet untried in the northern hemisphere. Their head coach, Pat Howard, an Australian said: "The central contract system works well in smaller unions where there are no clashes between clubs and country - although Wallaby scrum-half George Gregan last played for his club in 1996 - but it can't work in this country with the fixture list the way it is." Leicester's chief executive, Peter Wheeler, yesterday spoke of a "Doomsday scenario" if something is not sorted out. The Tigers want action, although quite what action was not specified.

It could well be that the clubs come to an agreement with their England players that each individual either stays and plays with the club, or the club pays him off, releases him from his contract and he signs a central contract with England.

That is where Robinson's plans could be scuppered since there is little security in a national contract, as Tigers Ben Kay, Julian White, George Chuter and Graham Rowntree discovered last week when they were omitted from the 30-man autumn international training squad. "I think we are getting to the point that the D-day we have been coming to for the last 10 years is almost here. I think everyone needs to be aware that we have exhausted every avenue," said a despairing Wheeler.

"All our livelihoods are at stake. This hits at the very core of our livelihoods. The central contract issue is going to affect players massively. It has not been very well thought through." What Leicester want is a re-think on the Long Form Agreement, because, as they admit, things have changed a great deal since it was drawn up at the beginning of the century.

Simon Cohen, Leicester's head of rugby operations and a qualified solicitor said: "As an English rugby supporter it's a plea for sanity, there is potentially a huge crisis lying in wait for the game." The clubs' present agreement on the release of England players for squad sessions runs out at the end of November and Wheeler wants something in place by then. But even the former England hooker was at a loss to know precisely what lever the clubs could use to force the issue.

The Leicester managing director, David Clayton, did sound fairly bullish when he said: "It would be wrong to assume we are totally dependent upon RFU money. Five or ten years ago, yes, but not any longer."

Whether he is centrally contracted or not Lawrence Dallaglio hinted that he would be interested in playing for England again. Dallaglio, 33, made his decision to retire a year ago because of the "brutal demands" of the modern game - but his desire to pull on the red rose jersey still burns strongly. Dallaglio returns to the game following his horrific ankle injury 21 minutes into the opening game of the Lions tour against Bay of Plenty, when he turns out for Wasps against Cardiff tomorrow.

"When your country calls - if it calls - it is very difficult to turn down, because playing rugby is about playing at the highest level. But I'm not looking beyond the first step really. I'm really looking forward to playing against Cardiff and not beyond that. England is another story."