Walkinshaw wins backing for British league plan

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The Independent Online

Tom Walkinshaw, the Formula One-loving Gloucester owner who has taken it upon himself to drive English club rugby forward at speeds that would force Michael Schumacher into an abrupt change of underwear, achieved a significant victory among his fellow financial "fat cats" yesterday by winning a unanimous mandate to pursue plans for a British League involving 10 Allied Dunbar Premiership teams plus the best from Scotland and Wales. Walkinshaw will now take his blueprint to the Rugby Football Union and ask the chairman, Brian Baister, and the chief executive, Francis Baron, to give it the once over.

Tom Walkinshaw, the Formula One-loving Gloucester owner who has taken it upon himself to drive English club rugby forward at speeds that would force Michael Schumacher into an abrupt change of underwear, achieved a significant victory among his fellow financial "fat cats" yesterday by winning a unanimous mandate to pursue plans for a British League involving 10 Allied Dunbar Premiership teams plus the best from Scotland and Wales. Walkinshaw will now take his blueprint to the Rugby Football Union and ask the chairman, Brian Baister, and the chief executive, Francis Baron, to give it the once over.

If the RFU buys the idea, the new competition will begin next September. But it is a mighty big "if". The more conservative elements on the various union committees - and there are more conservatives to be found at Twickenham than in Tory Central Office - are certain to object to any new cross-border tournament organised and financed by the club movement rather than the governing body. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Rob Andrew, the former England outside-half and current director of rugby at Newcastle, has just completed his own report on the structure of domestic rugby, the findings of which were scheduled to be debated by the Club England committee today.

However, Walkinshaw's success in carrying the entire Premiership One membership with him means the RFU must take his proposals extremely seriously, especially as both the Welsh and Scottish unions are increasingly dissatisfied with the standard of their own domestic rugby and want their leading players to participate in a challenging, well-funded and heavily televised nationwide league.

"As we keep on saying, we're more than happy with the rugby we're getting in the Allied Dunbar Premiership," said one leading English club figure last night. "But we thought it prudent to keep the British league channels open after the original plan collapsed this time last year, and the Welsh in particular are now being far more realistic in their demands." Another source said: "People don't believe us when we say this, but we actually think it very important for the future of the game in these islands that the Welsh and Scottish club cultures survive. This is no time to play the Little Englander."

Under the "Walkinshaw Plan," as it has become known, only four Welsh teams would be involved; one of the so-called "big five" - Cardiff, Newport, Llanelli, Swansea and Pontypridd - would therefore be cut off without so much as a penny, let alone a fixture list worthy of the name. But there would be major English casualties, too; with only 10 places available, two current Premiership One clubs would bite the dust - more if one of the more ambitious Premiership Two sides, perhaps Leeds or Worcester, won a franchise. Walkinshaw is an enthusiastic supporter of the franchise system, whereby member clubs would be required to meet minimum criteria in terms of ground facilities, playing strength and financial backing. In return, they would be guaranteed a British League place for at least four seasons.

While yesterday's meeting at Heathrow Airport resulted in a unanimous pro-vote, a number of club owners remain profoundly concerned over the ramifications of a British League. But by giving Walkinshaw, the chairman of English First Division Rugby, their approval on the proviso that he plays it by the book and follows the proper channels, they have bought themselves time and prevented a damaging leadership crisis.

Rumour had been rife that Walkinshaw would have at least considered resigning - and, perhaps, pulling out of rugby altogether - had his fellow financiers rejected his blueprint out of hand.

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