World Cup defence in jeopardy, Baron warns

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The Independent Online

"In terms of developing a team capable of being competitive at the World Cup, we are already at the 11th hour," said the Rugby Football Union's chief executive. "Based on our experience in 1999 and 2003, we need two years minimum to prepare for the tournament. We are at that point now. To stand any chance of succeeding in what has become a massively complex and challenging environment, we simply must plan well ahead. Yet we've been in discussions with the clubs since September 2004 and we have no agreement. It's fair to say we are fed up with these problems."

As Baron and his colleagues on a five-man RFU negotiating panel are increasingly desperate to secure a lasting agreement on international player release and a number of ancillary issues - summer rest periods, a strict 28-match limit for élite squad members, academy management and a firm commitment to England's seven-a-side programme - they are unhappy that Tom Walkinshaw of Gloucester, the chairman of the clubs' administrative body, has flown to Australia on business at a crucial point in the talks.

The RFU panel believes the clubs have acted in bad faith over rest periods for players who toured New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions last summer and has accused them of flouting the Long Form Agreement signed by the two sides in 2001.

The current argument is not noticeably different to the vast majority of the others that have broken out between the union and its leading teams since the sanctioning of professionalism a decade ago: the RFU wants greater access to, and control over, international players whose contracts are held by the clubs. But as ever, the dispute has mushroomed to include such sensitive topics as central contracts. There have even been reports of Twickenham trying to buy a controlling interest in one or more Premiership sides, though this was denied by Baron yesterday.

He did, however, acknowledge he wanted the introduction of "tripartite contracts", under which leading players would be jointly employed by the union and the clubs, thereby coming under exclusive control of England during international programmes. In return, the union would continue to fund the clubs to the tune of £10m a year and set up a £20m capital fund for stadium improvements across the Premiership.

Baron confirmed the union had received a writ from the clubs in respect of £135,000 withheld from those teams who, in the RFU's opinion, played their Lions before an agreed 11-week rest period had expired. "It doesn't help when writs start flying around," he said. "We take the view that rugby concerns are not resolved through lawyers and courts, but we'll let the legal issue live its own life and continue with the negotiations. We are prepared to continue to invest in the club game, and that will change only in the unlikely event of us failing to secure an agreement. We do, however, need to get this done as a matter of urgency."

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