The conflict of serving two masters

Chris Rea fears for the RFU's guardianship of a divided game
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The Independent Online
I have long been an ardent admirer of Neil Back's play and a vigorous campaigner for his inclusion in the national side. But following events of the past fortnight I am more than ever in awe of the man. Just think, throughout all those years the Leicester player has been labouring under the appalling handicaps of raging myopia and acute colour-blindness. How else could he have confused the slender figure of Steve Lander for the muscular slab of Andy Robinson and the referee's pantomime shirt for a Bath jersey?

No doubt about it, there was malice aforethought in Back's action when the final whistle blew at Twickenham two weeks ago. Back can consider himself extremely fortunate that the disciplinary committee were as much of a pushover as the hapless Mr Lander and that he has escaped with what is in effect no more than a 10-week ban.

No less disappointing is Leicester's attitude to the affair and their promotion of the incident as little more than a comedy of errors. Whatever has happened to this great club? Since the resignation of John Allen as secretary at the start of the season it appears to have lost all sense of direction and integrity. The sacking of Tony Russ was an unwholesome episode which, in the midst of Leicester's assault on the League and Cup double, escaped close scrutiny but which has left far too many questions unanswered.

If this is the kind of lead the game will be given should the top clubs win their battle against Cliff Brittle and the remnants of support still loyal to him within the Rugby Football Union, then heaven help us. The deepening divisions within the governing body were highlighted last week by their continuing obstinacy over the television negotiations with the other home unions and by the announcement that Colin Herridge was to join Donald Kerr on the Harlequins board of directors. Is it possible that Herridge, recently proposed as the new treasurer of the RFU, can discharge his duties to them and to Harlequins fairly? This most affable of men appears to have placed himself in what can only be termed the most compromising of positions.

Herridge surely cannot serve two bodies who are so implacably opposed to each other on a number of important issues. But herein lies the RFU's biggest problem and the most serious threat to their guardianship of the game in England. There are too many within their own ranks who are peddling the opposition cause. Those concerns were expressed last week by the counties whose threat to call another special general meeting will become a promise unless they get satisfaction from their meeting with Bill Bishop, the president, and the secretary Tony Hallett.

It is an unholy, unseemly mess. One of the principal stumbling blocks, as it has been since the start of these protracted negotiations, is the number of clubs competing in the First Division next season. The English Professional Rugby Union Clubs are demanding 12 with a reduction to 10 the following season. Brittle and his team are unwavering in their commitment to 10. Epruc, representing as they do the top two divisions, believe they have a duty to make representations on behalf of English First Division Rugby Limited who are purportedly incandescent with rage over the RFU's decision to allow relegation from the top tier this season.

To be more accurate, Saracens and West Hartlepool, the two relegated clubs, are fuming. The rest are maintaining a discreet silence. And so they should. If there were 12 First Division clubs next season it would mean that four would have to be relegated at the end of it. Either that or there would be no promotion from the Second Division and with the size of the investment made by clubs like Newcastle, Richmond and Coventry hoping to fast-track their way to the top, that would lead to a revolution.

Another fine mess which the Rugby League have been doing their damnedest to exploit. "The clash of the codes" fiasco confirmed that Bath were prepared to go bravely to their execution and that Wigan are a very good league side. Next week's return at Twickenham will prove that Bath are a very good Union side and that Wigan will go equally courageously to meet their fate which may be less painful. The exercise is without value save as a money-making gimmick and to attempt to dignify it as a historic reconciliation is ludicrous.

Maurice Lindsay believes that Wigan, by the annihilation of Bath and triumph at Twickenham last week, have established beyond all doubt the league code as the game true athletes will want to play in the future. Baloney. No player of ambition and in his right mind would forsake the high profile and glamour, to say nothing of money, of Twickenham and the Arms Park for the anonymity and the glue- pots of Castleford and Halifax. Lindsay must know that when (sadly it is no longer a question of if) the codes eventually merge to form professional rugby, it is more likely to be on union's terms than league's although we all know that the terms will be dictated by Rupert Murdoch.

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