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Union pledges to be debt-free in a year

The Rugby Football Union announced at its annual general meeting yesterday that it hopes to be debt-free within a year.

Rugby's governing body, which gathered more than 300 of its members to the meeting at London's Park Lane Hilton Hotel, revealed that come August 2003 it expects to have paid off a £38m loan. Its chief executive Francis Baron said: "The past year has been very difficult commercially. Following the tragic events in New York on September 11, commercial confidence started to evaporate.

"We were fortunate during the year to conclude new TV deals with both Sky and the BBC. Also our merchandising sales have been very good and we have achieved record sales on a number of match days.

"This means we have been able to strengthen further the RFU's financial position. We have repaid several million pounds of our bank loan. By August next year, we will have paid off our entire £38m loan and become debt-free."

The South African Rugby managing director Rian Oberholzer has denied a report in yesterday's Sunday Times that the Springboks are considering playing in the Six Nations.

"They are making a story out of a nothing conversation that was held two weeks ago, they probably needed to fill space," he said. "We can't have all our eggs in one basket, but to try and play in the Six Nations is an impossibility, it is the biggest load of nonsense ever."