Second Division clubs launch legal action

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The Independent Online

Any lingering hopes of a quiet, civilised rapprochement between the power-suited warmongers at the top end of English rugby took another battering yesterday when the Second Division clubs sent writs flying in the direction of every Premiership outfit, from Newcastle in the north-east to Bath in the south-west. Chief executives and those of similar rank were personally threatened with legal action for alleged breach of contract over promotion and relegation, the issue that threatens to make the last five years of political strife look like a champagne breakfast.

Any lingering hopes of a quiet, civilised rapprochement between the power-suited warmongers at the top end of English rugby took another battering yesterday when the Second Division clubs sent writs flying in the direction of every Premiership outfit, from Newcastle in the north-east to Bath in the south-west. Chief executives and those of similar rank were personally threatened with legal action for alleged breach of contract over promotion and relegation, the issue that threatens to make the last five years of political strife look like a champagne breakfast.

Cecil Duckworth, the owner of Worcester and the most prominent campaigner against the Rugby Football Union blueprint for the future of the domestic game as drawn up by Rob Andrew, warned last week that he and his allies would go to law in pursuit of satisfaction. He has been good to his word.

Yesterday's morning post provided some interesting reading for the Premiership's managerial classes, although there was little sign of panic.

"I was pretty flabbergasted at first," one chief executive said. "But then I got on the phone and spoke to some of the others apparently being sued, and we had a good chuckle about it all. If you didn't laugh, you'd cry."

The fact that the English Second Division Rugby committee has opted for the bare-knuckle approach at this precise juncture will raise eyebrows, even among those who feel they have seen it all twice over since the bitching and backbiting first started in the autumn of 1995. Sir Oliver Popplewell, one of the more august figures in British legal circles, was planning to meet with both sides next week in his role as a Twickenham-appointed facilitator. It will be no particular surprise if the Premiership clubs now refuse to play ball in any peace process until the writs are withdrawn.

If it had not dawned on him already, yesterday's inflammatory development must have alerted Sir Oliver to the unfathomable depths of mistrust between the two sides. The Premiership clubs want the Rob Andrew plan, complete with its promotion play-off mechanism, implemented at the earliest opportunity, not least so they can start tapping into some much-needed central funding from Twickenham. The Second Division, backed in large part by the grass roots movement, are demanding automatic promotion for at least one club and preferably two. Even though the Andrew plan was approved by the RFU Council in April, the management board know they will face a Special General Meeting and a vote of no-confidence the moment they put it into effect. It is one unholy mess.

There are no such problems down Dublin way, where the Ireland coach, Warren Gatland, yesterday unveiled an exciting new back division for this weekend's Test with Japan at Lansdowne Road. Geordan Murphy, the exquisitely gifted Leicester player, makes a first home start at full-back while two of the form wings in the Heineken Cup, Denis Hickie and Tyrone Howe, are paired out wide. Gatland felt able to leave the likes of Rob Henderson and David Humphreys on the bench. The Bath centre Kevin Maggs, a consistent performer at international level, is not even in the 22.

There were fewer options for Gatland up front, thanks to the withdrawals of two experienced engine-room hands, Mick Galwey and Jeremy Davidson.

Galwey suffered a serious knee injury during Munster's defeat at Bath 11 days ago, while Davidson has yet to recover from a broken hand. Paddy Johns, the veteran Ulsterman, returns to Test duty alongside Malcolm O'Kelly, while two open-side specialists, Andy Ward and Kieron Dawson, link up in the back row. Once again, the talented Eric Miller makes up the numbers among the replacements.

IRELAND TEAM (v Japan, Dublin, Saturday 11 November): G Murphy (Leicester); D Hickie (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster), S Horgan (Leinster), T Howe (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); A Foley (Munster), K Dawson (London Irish), A Ward (Ulster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), P Johns (Ulster), J Hayes (Munster), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Clohessy (Munster). Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), J Fitzpatrick (Ulster), G Longwell (Ulster), E Miller (Leinster), B O'Meara (Leinster), D Humphreys (Ulster), R Henderson (Wasps).

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