Super league backers reveal £85m plan

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The Independent Online

THE BIG-MONEY financiers behind English club rugby yesterday unveiled an imaginative and wide-ranging blueprint that would effectively reinvent the professional game across the British mainland. Their idea for a 16-strong "superleague" involving franchised teams from England, Scotland and Wales has already been underwritten to the remarkably merry tune of £85m over five years - new money that would solve the owners' cash flow problems at a stroke and also give the top end of the sport a stable economic base. All they need to do now is to sweet talk their way past that bastion of "old fartdom", the Rugby Football Union.

THE BIG-MONEY financiers behind English club rugby yesterday unveiled an imaginative and wide-ranging blueprint that would effectively reinvent the professional game across the British mainland. Their idea for a 16-strong "superleague" involving franchised teams from England, Scotland and Wales has already been underwritten to the remarkably merry tune of £85m over five years - new money that would solve the owners' cash flow problems at a stroke and also give the top end of the sport a stable economic base. All they need to do now is to sweet talk their way past that bastion of "old fartdom", the Rugby Football Union.

That may well prove difficult. The RFU rejected a request by Tom Walkinshaw, who owns 70 per cent of the Gloucester club and chairs English First Division Rugby, to present the superleague plan to the management board before yesterday's meeting of the full Union council at Twickenham. Instead they suggested he put a copy in the post, which hardly implied that they were about to give their unequivocal blessing.

"I was disappointed," admitted Walkinshaw, the clear driving force behind the initiative. "To have a situation where the clubs are barred from talking to their union about something as important as the future of professional rugby in this country is ridiculous. But we won't be throwing in the towel on this one. We're committed to seeing it through because we think it represents a realistic way forward. The money is on the table - £1m per club per season, plus £1m in prize money - and I think we have a right to an audience with our own governing body."

Walkinshaw confirmed that the competition, to all intents and purposes a British league, would feature 10 English teams, four from Wales and two from Scotland. He also said that the national coaches of both Celtic countries, Graham Henry and Ian McGeechan, were fully behind the scheme. Governance would rest with the three national unions, who would have seats on the board of a new league company, which would hold the purse strings by controlling broadcasting and commercial rights.

"As things stand, the two Scottish sides [Glasgow Caledonians and Edinburgh Reivers] would not be given shareholder status because they are run by their union," Walkinshaw added. "If they are put in private hands, a shareholding would be theirs."

The Formula One entrepreneur, who is part-owner of the Arrows team, also exploded a number of myths about his blueprint; crucially, he made it clear that no club would be put out of business by the creation of a new cross-border tournament. Under his plan, the superleague would be an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the domestic leagues: for instance, Northampton and Bedford, close East Midlands neighbours, might team up to secure a superleague franchise, but continue as individual outfits in a down-graded Division One. Sale and Leeds might conceivably do something similar to provide a showcase for club rugby in the north.

"We're not excluding anyone from the process," insisted the chairman in an effort to soothe the righteous anger of the current Allied Dunbar Premiership Two clubs, who are mortified at the prospect of being denied promotion opportunities for five ring-fenced years. "To get a superleague franchise, applicants will need to come up with a £1m bond and meet various criteria concerning stadia, financial probity and community involvement. We don't know how many clubs will come up with that sort of money, or who they will be. And anyway, the relegation issue is there to be debated."

In effect, the proposed competition would mirror the southern hemisphere's much-envied Super 12 series: players would compete for superleague contracts and the successful ones would find themselves playing a higher standard of rugby than is currently the case. They would also play less matches. Under the proposals an international would be expected to play as few as 30 games a season - a figure that includes 10 Tests. "It's a virtuous circle," Walkinshaw said. "Better rugby leads to a better national team, which in turn leads to more supporters and greater viability for the clubs."

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