RFU declares war on top clubs over player releases

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The Independent Online

In response, Premier Rugby - the top-flight clubs' umbrella organisation - repeated their claim that no deal was agreed with the Rugby Football Union over English-qualified tourists and said they would seek early payment of the money owed, complete with interest. As a first step, they will raise the issue with the Lions' hierarchy. As a last step, they will seek redress in the courts.

Earlier this year, Premier Rugby negotiated compensation payments of £15,000 per man for those players selected for the tour of All Black country - the first such agreement in Lions history. The Irish provinces, Welsh regions and Scottish "super clubs" were included in the deal, but the lion's share of the money, so to speak, was set aside for the English sides, who contributed a total of 20 players to the trip.

According to the RFU, three clubs - Wasps, Leicester and Sale - have selected players for this season's Premiership matches in blatant contravention of the 11-week rule, a long-standing arrangement designed to guarantee leading internationals adequate rest between campaigns. Those players in question include the current England captain, Martin Corry, who featured in Leicester's opening game of the season against Northampton, much to the exasperation of the RFU's performance department.

Two other Leicester players, the prop Julian White and the lock Ben Kay, are also deemed to have taken the field too early, although the Tigers believe they played by the RFU's own book in Kay's case and are mystified by his inclusion. Wasps are £30,000 light because Matthew Dawson and Simon Shaw were denied the full 11 weeks, while Sale have been hit hardest of all, to the tune of £60,000. Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Charlie Hodgson and Andrew Sheridan are the men at issue at Edgeley Park.

While the Premiership clubs insist the money is theirs - indeed, many senior figures are questioning why the cash was not paid direct, rather than through the RFU - the union believes the three teams involved, who just happen to be the most prolific developers of English international talent and are therefore most seriously undermined by Test call-ups, are engaging in semantics at best and bad faith at worst.

Unless this conflict is resolved quickly, the question of central contracts for as many as 120 leading players could soon find its way on to the rugby agenda - a recipe for meltdown if ever there was one.

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