Snipers threaten the peace treaty

Chris Rea argues that a lasting settlement is still some distance away
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The Independent Online
Peace in our time - but only just. The Leicester accord between the Rugby Football Union and the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs, which was announced on Thursday night, may turn out to be more of a ceasefire than a full-blown, permanent settlement.

There are too many snipers still lurking in the undergrowth for anyone to feel completely secure about rugby's future. Sir John Hall and Son, rugby men through to their Alan Shearer replica vests, peevishly walked out of the meeting in Leicester before agreement had been reached. For the time being they have gone but for how long? Sir John is still sabre- rattling from the sidelines. And how many more punctured egos are searching for ways and means to reflate?

There is much to do, not least to come up with an appropriate name for the new company (temporarily called Newco) charged with the awesome responsibility of organising the club game in England.

Somehow the new title will have to convey a spirit of harmony between the groups. As for the playground bullies, Epruc, they face neither detention nor suspension but, in their present form, oblivion. They will presumably now merge with Newco, whose board of management will comprise six representatives from the clubs and two from the RFU, who will nevertheless still have the right of approval, as Cliff Brittle, the chairman of the executive, demanded.

The funding arrangements are extremely generous and - for the majority of the 24 leading clubs - perfectly acceptable: pounds 8m this season, pounds 10m in each of the following two seasons and a conditional guarantee of more money in years four and five.

The fact is that Epruc have been a disaster. They have made threats they did not carry through, promises they could not keep and ultimately they have conceded ground on almost every point they raised. They have served no purpose other than to cause massive disruption to the season, to fuel the wildest fantasies of a few and to bring hardship to the rest. Right up until the end of last week's negotiations, the hawkish minority were prepared to scupper the deal and had it not been for what amounted to a forced entry by the moderates, agreement would still not have been reached between the sides.

The first task of the new company will be to solve the problem of the players' contracts. As things stand at the moment it is possible that England's leading players may be prevented from signing an RFU contract as a consequence of their binding agreement with their clubs and Epruc. Another priority will be to find a way through the maze of conflicting interests to produce a properly structured season benefiting both club and country without endangering the health and safety of the players. It is folly to overload the system. Not only would it be physically devastating for the players but it would be a surefire turn-off for the public, whose tolerance threshold and whose pockets are already showing signs of being overstretched.

The crowd for last week's international against Italy was disappointing, no matter how many and varied were the excuses for it. There are unlikely to be many more at Twickenham for the game against Argentina in a fortnight's time. The pre-Christmas schedule for next season is even more punishing against opponents of the highest calibre. Before very long the golden goose, poor dear, will be flat on its back, legs in the air. The buzz of excitement, the tingle of anticipation surrounding international fixtures, stem from their rarity value. Destroy that and you start to erode the magic and mystique of the occasion.

On the other hand the bills, which must now accommodate the players' wages, have to be paid, but it is surely not beyond the wit and wisdom of the game's administrators to produce a plan which will be of maximum benefit to all parties involved.

However much they attempt to play down their achievement this has been an important victory for the RFU. If all goes according to plan they will have regained control of the top players and retained the authority to negotiate with television companies and to structure the season. Most important of all, they will control the game. What they must do now is to transform themselves into a body fit to govern in the professional era.

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