RFU issues ultimatum over relegation

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The Independent Online

The top brass of the Rugby Football Union yesterday revealed that representatives of all 26 warring professional clubs would soon be subjected to a hotel lock-in and told not to emerge until agreement had been reached on the vexed question of promotion and relegation.

The top brass of the Rugby Football Union yesterday revealed that representatives of all 26 warring professional clubs would soon be subjected to a hotel lock-in and told not to emerge until agreement had been reached on the vexed question of promotion and relegation.

Those supporters sick to the back teeth of oval-ball politics will accuse the union of getting it only half right: they feel the combatants should be locked up, rather than locked in. Still, the now or never ultimatum suggests that the whole sorry saga may be nearing its denouement.

Brian Baister, the RFU chairman, and Francis Baron, the chief executive, held a joint presentation at Twickenham to outline the latest diplomatic manoeuvrings aimed at solving the most intractable problem to hit domestic rugby since... well, the last intractable problem. A team of specialist independent facilitators will be brought in to oversee the talks - ACAS, the masters of arbitration, have been ruled out but the Mafia are thought to be in the frame - and it is fervently hoped that a deal can be reached by the time England play their first international of the season on 18 November.

While both the RFU and the 12 Zurich Premiership clubs are backing an annual play-off between the bottom side in the élite league and the top side in National Division One, the English Second Division Rugby negotiating team is demanding a straight two-up, two-down format. The political logjam is hitting the Premiership clubs in the pocket, for the RFU will not release £6.6m of new funding until the issue is thrashed out.

However, it is the Second Division clubs who have the most to lose in the long run. If no deal is reached by the end of May, when the so-called Leicester Agreement governing domestic league rugby expires, the RFU will implement the will of its own constituent members and insist on two-up, two-down. That, in turn, will ensure that the Premiership clubs, who are effectively funding their more lowly brethren to the tune of £3m a season, cut the financial cord for good.

By pulling in all 26 clubs - one hopes the chosen hotel has a well-stocked bar - the RFU has cleverly taken the initiative away from the respective negotiating teams, who are barely on speaking terms, and widened the debate to include all interested parties. Given that most of the Second Division clubs would welcome a cripplingly expensive spell in the Premiership in the same way that Nixon welcomed Watergate, the smart money must be on them cutting their losses and agreeing to the RFU's play-off plan, which carries with it a sweetener of £40m over 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Union declared its "full support" for the British and Irish Lions, who tour Australia next summer. A draft strategic plan, prepared by Baron and his Twickenham management team and sent to RFU council members for their consideration, describes the Lions as an "interference" in terms of England's World Cup ambitions and criticises the commercial basis on which such tours are undertaken. Previous drafts were even more dismissive of the most celebrated institution in the game. However, a new draft has now been agreed in which the tone has been softened significantly. It is this draft that will be discussed by the full council a week today.

It was a day of mixed fortune on the Heineken Cup front. Matt Dawson, out of rugby since May with shoulder trouble, will be back to bolster Northampton when the struggling champions take on Leinster tomorrow, but Lawrence Dallaglio is out of Wasps' must-win match with Stade Français in Paris because of a thigh injury.

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