Sky TV deal could get RFU off the hook

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
The internecine and international strife that is tearing English and British rugby asunder may be resolved by a rescue made by an unlikely saviour: BSkyB, whose vast offer for the broadcasting rights to English rugby sent the Rugby Football Union in its independent direction in the first place.

Today the RFU intends, almost as an act of despair, to state its case for separate English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish television deals when the present contract with the BBC expires next year. The other home unions are so unconvinced by what they see as the patronising English attitude that they are threatening to eject England from the Five Nations' Championship and make next year's Lions tour of South Africa without them but possibly with the French.

These are no idle threats, as the Irish attitude, enunciated by Syd Millar, president of the IRFU, shows. "We're not beating about the bush on this one. We can't afford not to have our share." These ostensibly mild remarks should be taken in the context that Ireland have, for a quarter of a century, been England's closest rugby allies.

The RFU has effectively put its internal dispute with its leading clubs over the control and financing of professional rugby in England on hold while it deals with the television question. No meetings with English Professional Rugby Union Clubs are planned, and in the meantime Epruc, which has already announced a cup and league boycott, is getting on with planning its autonomous 1996-97 season.

But if the RFU was able to finalise an agreement for the reported pounds 150m- plus with Sky - which would inevitably involve the sharing of live coverage of Twickenham internationals with a terrestrial station - it could then pass enough funds the way of the clubs comfortably to cover the costs of professionalism and provoke a retreat from the present entrenched positions. The only losers would, of course, be the punters.

The next part is even trickier, but if Sky - as is now being suggested - agree big-money individual contracts with each of the other home unions, then everyone is suddenly off the hook. Short of a straight RFU backdown, there does not appear to be any other obvious solution to either of its disputes.

While the RFU's "foot is off the pedal", as one club official put it, Epruc claims its plans are virtually complete. The RFU's assertion, that no broadcaster will speak to anyone but it, is patent nonsense and, unless the logic of the Sky scenario is followed, at some as-yet indeterminate stage Epruc will simply declare its independence.

"We are going to go on with our strategy and when that starts to come to fruition there will be a remarkable sense of urgency on the part of the union," Donald Kerr, the Epruc chairman, said yesterday. "We have fixture lists worked out in detail for all our competitions and, after a bit of fine-tuning, we will be happy to publish these."

As things stand, no meetings between the clubs and the union are planned. Yet various of the antagonists - Peter Wheeler and Kerr of the clubs, and Cliff Brittle, Bill Bishop and Tony Hallett of the RFU - sat within a dozen feet of each other at Sunday's Sanyo Cup match at Twickenham, Hallett and Wheeler in adjacent seats. Brittle, the RFU chairman, has agreed to meet representatives of the Rugby Union Players' Association tomorrow; Rupa has also requested a meeting with Kerr.

Meanwhile, the third of the RFU's disputes - with Bath and Wigan over the restriction in Twickenham's capacity for the inter-code match on 25 May - is no nearer settlement. Yesterday's scheduled meeting between the police, the clubs and the union failed to materialise and it is now due to be held tomorrow.

Alan Watkins, page 24