The man in the middle of rugby union's civil war

Steve Bale assesses the RFU chief executive, who beat the establishment candidate for the job but is now facing a rebellion
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It would be impossible to exaggerate the depth of ill-feeling the alliance of major clubs gathered under the banner of EPRUC have for Cliff Brittle. Alas for them it is not Brittle they are fighting but another alliance, an unholy one of the English Counties and the broad swathe of Rugby Football Union membership for whom professionalism means nothing.

These are the people who will not acquiesce in a few big clubs trying to push the union - and by extension them - around, though this is scarcely fair on the big clubs when all they are trying to do is put in practice something which has in effect been imposed on them.

Now professionalism has come, they have quite properly embraced it and wish to make it work. The rest of the RFU is at best indifferent to their problems and at worst downright hostile to the very idea of professionalism, and this 54-year-old retired businessman is the standard-bearer of every single one of the many and varied interests ranged against the big clubs. They don't like it, and they don't like him.

Brittle, in his role of RFU executive chairman, speaks from a position of strength, no matter that until his election when he defeated John Jeavons- Fellows, the executive's own unanimous nominee - his was not among the union's highest profiles. The zenith of his playing career had been a period with Sale but for the most part he was confined to his native Stoke, for whom he played mainly at centre.

He also played and coached Staffordshire, the county he has represented on the RFU committee since 1989, though in fact he lives in tax exile on the Isle of Man. EPRUC would just as soon he went back there never to return. Hence their appeal yesterday to Bill Bishop, the RFU president, to involve himself. On Tuesday, when Brittle delivered the RFU's pronouncements, Bishop was notable by his absence - virtually the first time he has missed any of the union's media events this season. The story goes that he was at Twickenham but had been prevented from attending by Brittle.

Before and since, the clubs have conducted a campaign of personal vilification which has upset Brittle, though it has not persuaded him to withdraw nor anyone at the RFU to make that decision for him. Last week Brittle almost came to blows with Sir John Hall of Newcastle when they sat down in a doomed attempt to find common ground.

This week the war of words has been marginally more subtle but no less poisonous. First Brittle accused the clubs of breaking a gentleman's agreement not to negotiate through the media. Yesterday EPRUC came back with the self-same accusation against Brittle, also accusing him of surreptitious dealing in allowing Fran Cotton, the former England prop (and one of the RFU negotiating team), to attack the clubs at last month's second special general meeting.

Donald Kerr of EPRUC says that there are no pre-conditions to re-opening dialogue with the RFU, going so far as to describe Tony Hallett, the secretary, as a man he could do business with. But it is evident Brittle would first have to be removed. "He has selectively gone public on certain discussions at private meetings," Kerr complained yesterday.

"Having done this and also sanctioned Fran Cotton's speech against the top clubs at the last special meeting, in clear violation of the gentleman's agreement which we had then strictly adhered to, it is no wonder that he has now lost the confidence and trust of the clubs." Unfortunately they are 20, the RFU is 2,000.