When Nigel meets Cecil...

Tim Glover finds today's cup match at Watford is more than a game
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The Independent Online

In a match loaded with excess baggage, Worcester escape the attentions of the River Severn today to present their credentials to the Premiership high-flyers Saracens in the fifth round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup at Watford. If the leaders of the Second Division find themselves, as Leeds did at Northampton last week, out of their depth, it will be damaging in more ways than one.

In a match loaded with excess baggage, Worcester escape the attentions of the River Severn today to present their credentials to the Premiership high-flyers Saracens in the fifth round of the Tetley's Bitter Cup at Watford. If the leaders of the Second Division find themselves, as Leeds did at Northampton last week, out of their depth, it will be damaging in more ways than one.

There is a lot more riding on it than mere progress in the national knockout cup. For a start there are the two millionaires, Nigel Wray of Saracens and Cecil Duckworth of Worcester, who have been going at it hammer and tongs over English rugby's latest crisis, the saga of promotion and relegation.

Earlier in the week Duckworth, the chairman of English Second Division Rugby, issued writs to the chief executives of all 12 clubs in English First Division Rugby, alleging they had acted improperly in agreeing to a play-off between the bottom club in the Premiership and the champions of the Second Division. Duckworth, with the support of the powerful Rugby Football Union Council, wants automatic promotion and relegation plus a play-off.

However, the legal action has been put on hold until after a meeting with the facilitator Sir Oliver Popplewell next Thursday, a meeting that has taken on immense importance. If agreement is not reached the council say they will enforce Resolution 9A, which was passed at the RFU AGM, namely two up and two down. The RFU and EFDR have already attended initial briefings with Sir Oliver. Duckworth and his team will meet the former High Court judge tomorrow.

One of the first things Sir Oliver will have to get his head around is the alphabet of acronyms. EFDR stands for a body who are called the Premiership; ESDR for a division who have been renamed National League One. Then there's the English Rugby Partnership, a limited company formed to run the top level of the domestic game. ERP are owned 50 per cent by the RFU, 33.33 per cent by EFDR and 16.66 per cent by ESDR. Aside from the tripartite talks with Popplewell in four days, ERP offer the only forum for the three fractious factions.

The problem, Duckworth maintains, is that it is not a partnership at all. "ESDR have two votes, the RFU two votes and EFDR four votes," the Worcester owner said. "If there is deadlock the casting vote goes to the chairman, who is from the First Division. They have total control. They don't take any notice of the RFU and are forcing things through against the wishes of the Second Division. I've been told by some club owners that relegation and promotion is a side-show. The real issue is that the First Division don't want to give up their unusual powers which allow them to control the élite game."

The chairman of ERP is none other than Nigel Wray, who today welcomes Duckworth to Vicarage Road. Duckworth has invested millions in his club with the aim of taking them, via automatic promotion, into the Premiership, and the team, coached by Geoff Cooke, will discover whether they are ready to swim with the big fish.

At the Popplewell summit Wray will almost certainly come face to face with Duckworth once again, although EFDR, against the wishes of the RFU Council, are sending a small negotiating team. ESDR, on the other hand, will be represented by all 14 clubs in the Second Division. Duckworth has also taken the matter to the Office of Fair Trading and a judgment could be delivered next week.

"Ultimately," Duckworth said, "it's not about what I want, it's what the game wants, and it's clear from the rank and file they want a democratic system of promotion and relegation. The First Division complained that the RFU have not delivered the Rob Andrew plan, but they have been fighting against it from day one. What they want is their own version. Maybe Popplewell will be able to find a way through this maze."

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