Tim Glover: Sir Digby weighs in for a new union ruck

Club v country: Tigers' latest recruit brings big business knowhow to dispute as threat grows to Robinson's England
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The Independent Online

Peter Wheeler, the chief executive of Leicester, a former England captain, and a man not allergic to a bit of rough and tumble, dramatically raised the temperature of the club-versus-country conflict last week by lobbing in some incendiary language. The very notion that the Rugby Football Union would like to put England's 30 finest players under central contracts made a red rag to a bull look like a peace offering as far as Wheeler was concerned. "We will fight it because it hits at the core of our livelihoods. Leicester have never been a militant club, but even the softies on our board are steaming. We're approaching D-Day."

Indeed. The D could stand for Digby, as in Sir Digby Jones, the director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. Has the dispute reached such a crisis point that it needs the attention of such a big troubleshooter? Not exactly.

Sir Digby, with impeccable timing, has joined the Tigers' board of directors, and the softies are about to get a crash course in jungle warfare. Peter Tom, the Leicester chairman, said: "Sir Digby brings with him a wealth of business knowledge and commercial expertise which will be invaluable as we look to further strengthen our position as the leading rugby club in Europe."

Sir Digby, who replaces David Jones, the chairman of Next, takes his seat at Welford Road on 1 November. He can hardly wait. "We've got to really fight for the Premiership clubs and ensure they don't get emasculated by the RFU. I'm ready to wade in with my size 10 boots."

Sir Digby became a Leicester season- ticket holder this season. "I have a long association with the Tigers. My mum's family are from Leicester and I used to play a lot of rugby in the Midlands." He hails from Birmingham and went to Bromsgrove School where, in the Seventies, he operated as a 15st, 6ft No 8. He knows his way around Welford Road and, more importantly, has an insider's knowledge of the professional game. When rugby bade a fond farewell to amateurism in the mid-Nineties Sir Digby, who qualified as a lawyer, handled the contracts of the Tigers players, advised on funding and assisted the club in moving from a friendly society to a plc. He also became a shareholder.

"When they floated I bought £10,000-worth of shares but got rid of them after joining the CBI in 1999. I didn't want there to be any prospect of a charge of conflict of interest."

Peter Tom, a multimillionaire businessman and a close friend, was respon-sible for recruiting Sir Digby to the board. "He told me there was a business slot available and my first response was that I hadn't got any money to put in. They're not paying me a penny and I'm doing this for love. What I bring to the table is an affection for the game and a bit of a reputation for taking on the big beasts of politics and business."

Sir Digby, who is accustomed to crossing swords with Gordon Brown and the commissioners of Brussels, added: "One of the reasons England won the World Cup is that the top clubs embraced professionalism from an early stage. I don't think Twickenham did. It is the clubs who have brought on the players and now the RFU want to control them and release them back to the Premiership as they see fit.

"Why should the clubs risk all that investment? Leicester play a huge role in the community. They don't have a sugar daddy and the biggest shareholder has four per cent. Leicester are looking to the next generation and they can't afford to lose the goodwill incentive. I can't fault the RFU for wanting to find another World Cup-winning team, but they're going about it completely the wrong way. Rugby is the greatest bonding sport and we can't let them destroy the ethos and spirit."

Some spirit. Last week, Premier Rugby Ltd served a writ on the RFU to recover £135,000 which should have been paid to Leicester, Wasps and Sale as compensation for supplying nine players on the Lions tour. Payment was withheld after the clubs fielded players during an agreed 11-week rest period. The move was bound to raise the stakes.

Andy Robinson, the England coach, enjoyed, if that is the correct word, a four-day coaching session at Loughborough last week with his squad of 30, who are preparing for next month's Tests against Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. He will have access again at the end of Oct-ober, but if the dispute goes to court and there is no transfusion of the bad blood England could find their campaign for the Six Nations severely undermined. As for the future of the Lions, no Premiership club are in a mood to touch them again with a pole from the world's biggest barge.

England's problems could be solved if Robinson gets more quality time with the players in return for greater financial reward. Money shouts even louder than the Leicester hierarchy. "I believe in club rugby but I'm also passionate about England," Robinson said. "The old system, whereby players were with their clubs one week and their country the next, demanded huge sacrifices. I want to see something put in place that will last, not just for the next World Cup, but for the next seven years."

In the meantime, the lawyers are licking their lips. Simon Cohen, a member of the small-print brigade and the Tigers' head of rugby operations, said: "There is a huge crisis lying in wait. The dispute would probably have to go through the European courts, and it could run for years." It won't.

Leicester are in the vanguard of the charge against the RFU - at Twickenham on Tuesday the Union will explain all to the England Supporters' Club in the morning and their sponsors in the evening - and even their coach, Pat Howard, an Australian, has entered the ring. England refused a request for Howard and his assistant, Richard Cockerill, to attend a national training session at Loughborough. So what? What business is it of Howard's? If every Premiership coach pitched up the players wouldn't be able to move. "A strong domestic competition is reflected in the national team and that was never more so than when England won the World Cup," Howard said. "The reason the RFU are now questioning the system is because England have had a run of poor results." So, does that reflect on the Premiership?

Perhaps Sir Digby will ride to the rescue. The good knight has never met Francis Baron, the chief executive of the RFU, and when that happens Twickenham could sell tickets. "I like a conclusion," Sir Digby said. "I'm quite a finisher. I never lose sight of the line."