The final betrayal of Brittle

Chris Rea fears rugby will be the loser in the clubs and country deal
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The Independent Online
The hour came but not, alas, the man. In the end it was sheer fatigue more than anything else which wore down the Rugby Football Union. It would be unforgivable, however, were a lack of stamina and resolve found to be responsible for what could yet turn out to be the most catastrophic decision ever made by the game's governing body in England. Right or wrong, the repercussions of it will be felt throughout the rugby world.

It could be of course that the paranoia which Cliff Brittle's many enemies, both within and without the RFU, accuse him of, turns out to be exactly that. In which case the game has nothing to fear from the accord reached between the clubs and the RFU. I happen to be one of the tiny minority who believe that Brittle is right and that the RFU, by putting their signatures to the document, are guilty of shameful betrayal.

During his year in office, Brittle has been portrayed as the major obstacle to an agreement. He is seen as a chump in some quarters, a champ in others. It is undeniably true that had it not been for Brittle's intransigence and bloody-minded determination, agreement between the two sides would have been reached long ago. But what a sell-out that would have been. Sir John Hall and his like would now be in total charge of the game.

The tragedy today is that so many people who have supported Hall, and who would happily follow him all the way in his avowed aim of dismantling the structure upon which the English game is built, are still around to exert their unwholesome influence. The question people should be asking is this - under the agreement reached could Hall become chairman of Newco, the company set up to run the club game? The answer to that is yes. If that doesn't scare the pants off the feckless crew who so overwhelmingly outvoted Brittle (50 to four) then nothing will.

At least Brittle can console himself with the fact that the document signed at Twickenham yesterday is an improvement on the one conceived by Epruc. But that is small consolation for those clubs who do not make it into the elite half-dozen of the Courage Leagues. It is no consolation at all to those clubs in Scotland and Ireland who have been stripped by the 'robber barons' in England and whose domestic game is in tatters.

Nor in the long run will it benefit the game in England. But that is for the future and for the consciences of those on the executive committee of the RFU who know full well that Brittle was finally brought down not by the blows from the front, but by the stab wounds from the rear. The chairman of the executive must now decide whether or not to give up the unequal struggle or to continue the fight from within.

For the moment, few can see further than the peace settlement and the new era so thrillingly ushered in by the Heineken European Cup. Last week's final in Cardiff will remain an imperishable memory for those lucky enough to have witnessed it. Most commentators now consider that through Europe lies the route to world domination for countries in the northern hemisphere.

Almost every week, on television and through the written word, we are bludgeoned into accepting that this tournament is the long sought but hitherto undiscovered bridge between club and international rugby. It is, we are told, the northern hemisphere's equivalent of the Super 12 and will provide the platform from which the European nations can launch their challenge to New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

There is, however, one crucial difference between the Super 12 and the Heineken Cup. When Auckland compete they do so with players who are qualified to represent New Zealand. It is the same with Transvaal in South Africa and with Queensland and Australia. The tournament offers an opportunity to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of players who are candidates for international selection and is not, primarily, an opportunity to make money for the privileged few who qualify for it.

Contrast this with the Heineken Cup where, in England at least, national requirements are a poor second to club interests. As the tournament gains in importance and popularity that self-interest is certain to increase and will quickly become all-consuming. What do you think Leicester's reaction will be to their defeat last Saturday? Will it be a long-term decision to strengthen their youth policy and build from within or will they yield, as others have already done, to the short-term fix of buying in ready- made talent?

Within 24 hours of Brive's stunning performance in Cardiff, the chequebooks were out at a number of British clubs for Gregori Kacala. Survival at this level, you see, depends not on tomorrow's promise but on today's success.

The moneymen see the Heineken Cup as a profit centre capable of delivering that instant success and they are right. But who exactly will profit? As a result of the RFU's decision, the chances are that it will not be the game or the country, but a handful of clubs. Never have the Rugby Football Union required stronger leadership than now. I wish I could believe that, last Thursday, they provided it.

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