Another day of sweetness and light in the halcyon world of English club rugby. Malcolm Pearce, who is withdrawing his financial support for Bristol RFC after throwing £9m at the business, also withdrew his presence from a press conference at the Memorial Ground in protest at the line of questioning. Meanwhile, two influential chief executives – Francis Baron, of the Rugby Football Union, and Howard Thomas, of Premier Rugby – went toe to toe in a public disagreement over automatic relegation from the top flight.
Pearce's walk-out, prompted by repeated suggestions that he was throwing in his lot with neighbouring Bath, left his audience, which included coaching and administrative staff whose jobs are at risk, in head-scratching mode. During his brief appearance, which featured a familiar mix of rugby bonhomie and barbed one-liners, the millionaire businessman confirmed three things: that he was severing his formal links with Bristol; that merger talks with Bath had been "blown out of the water" by Bristol's relegation from the Premiership; and that the club would play National League One matches at the Memorial Ground next season.
But Pearce was in no mood to confirm what was already an open secret in local sporting circles – that he is negotiating the purchase of a significant shareholding at Bath, the club with whom he was associated during the amateur era. He was also reluctant to explain the precise financial state in which Bristol could expect to find themselves following his departure. He would not even say whether he was selling the club, or giving it away to one of the consortia of local businessmen and former players now showing an interest in running affairs next season.
Bristol could start next season in a relatively healthy position, with £950,000 of central funding, including £750,000 in relegation "parachute" money, on the table. But many of the club's staff fear Pearce will use some, or most, of that cash to settle bills and clear the decks before jumping ship. "I'd be surprised if we have more than £300,000 to play with come September, and that won't allow us to compete on level terms with the likes of Orrell or Worcester," said one senior insider.
Certainly, the players are taking the view that money will be short next term. Yesterday, the fast-improving prop Andrew Sheridan announced that he had joined Sale, thereby following Phil Christophers, Garath Archer and Alex Brown out of the door. There will be many others. Only Craig Short, the local back-row product, and Paul Johnstone, the Zimbabwean hooker, have openly declared an intention to stay on. Peter Thorburn, the coach, said: "There will be a massive rebuilding job to be done, and I really don't know whether I have the necessary drive or the energy."
Meanwhile, the violent disagreement between Baron and Thomas during a briefing at Twickenham would only have confirmed Pearce in his dark view of the financial trauma involved in running a professional club. Baron raised the prospect of continued automatic relegation from the Premiership, just when the top-echelon clubs were banking on a more sympathetic play-off system from next season. "We cannot possibly go down a route that is seen as protection for investors," he said, much to Thomas's fury, "and we cannot create a safety net for people who get it wrong. We cannot underwrite poor management and poor performance."
A decision on the relegation arrangements for 2003-04 is due by the end of next month.Reuse content