The mutiny over the bounty

Rugby's new era lurches into conflict as England prepare for the Twickenham showpiece against the world champions; Chris Rea takes issue with the RFU as clubs see red over blueprint
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The Independent Online
IF ENGLAND's players show the same touch, timing and sensitivity against the Springboks next Saturday as their administrators displayed in producing rugby's blueprint for the future, there will be carnage at Twickenham. The Rugby Football Union have achieved the near impossible by delivering what is, in so many respects, an admirable document and yet upsetting almost everyone. The players are suspicious, the clubs mutinous and Scotland, Ireland and Wales apoplectic.

However well-intentioned the RFU may be, their capacity to offend appears limitless. Having the previous week contemptuously dismissed the format of the European competition so recently cobbled together, and having given the distinct impression that, unless the RFU were running it and extracting the main share of the revenue,there would be no English representation next season, they then had the gall to come up with the proposal to play the Five Nations' Championship in May.

Little wonder that their scheme found no favour on the Celtic fringes. Even if the plan had been workable some impediment would have been placed in its way by the other unions heartily sick of what they see as England's overweening arrogance. How much more sensible for the RFU Commission to have limited its brief to matters directly concerning the game in England and then privately to have embarked on a series of discussions with the other countries on the format and timing of the international championship. There were certain basic courtesies which had to be observed and which the Commission ignored. It is a pity because the idea of staging the Five Nations tournament on firm surfaces and in warmer temperatures was not entirely without merit.

The plan to split the matches, playing one on Saturday and the other on Sunday instead of simultaneously on the Saturday as at present, had already been agreed in principle by all parties along with the proposal to conduct a feasibility study of the overall sponsorship of the tournament. That is unlikely to be a hard sell to potential sponsors although, whether in the light of the RFU's latest attempts to hijack European rugby, agreement can be reached between the countries is another matter.

Equally irate are the clubs whose views are being given such eloquent expression by the Leicester president Peter Wheeler. The game, as he rightly says, has been asked to go from nought to 60 in a matter of seconds which is not easily achieved on a unicycle. He, along with many other club representatives, has been deeply disappointed by the Commission's report, one of the most contentious areas of which is the RFU's belief that there should be two contracts for the players, one with their clubs, the other with the union. Wheeler's view is that there should be a single agreement with the clubs who would then release their players for international duty.

Wheeler cites the case of Juninho at Middlesbrough where it has been agreed that he can be released to play for Brazil. But Wheeler appears to have missed a very important point. Juninho's income playing for Brazil is a fraction of what he will earn by playing for Middlesbrough. And so it is with every soccer player who represents his country. For England's rugby players the opposite applies. The national squad members can expect to earn twice as much from their selection for England as they can from their clubs. Presumably Cellnet have not forked out their millions simply for the right to have their name associated with the England rugby team. It will require more than a nod and a wink to satisfy them that their agreement with the players through the RFU is going to be honoured.

As the principal paymasters it is the RFU, not the clubs, who will be calling the loudest tune, and what the players must now accept is that by selling themselves into professionalism they have forfeited the amateur's priceless right to freedom of choice. The clubs for their part will have to find new ways of generating money. Those who sit back waiting for hand-outs from television and the governing bodies will be doomed. The annual wage bill alone for First Division clubs is likely to be in the region of pounds 400,000. Newcastle have produced an act which others like Saracens are attempting to follow, but not every club will be able to attract such patronage and so willingly want to sell their independence.

For the RFU and England's players, however, the serious business of generating money begins at Twickenham on Saturday when the game against the World Cup holders South Africa is expected to realise pounds 1.5m. Those funds are already committed to such mundane matters as grass-roots development and the spanking new West Stand which will, for the first time, grace the occasion in its full majesty. The hope - nay, the expectation - is that England's performance will be equally spectacular.

The odds are heavily against it. The Springboks, as they showed against the All Blacks in the World Cup final, have the most ferociously committed and tightly marshalled defensive system in the game. If their blanket coverage of the Ellis Park pitch that day owed much to one of the most emotionally charged events in sporting history, it was also a stunning demonstration of the South African's blinkered determination to repel the most intimidating of foes. But it would be dangerous to assume that the Springboks are one-dimension- ally defensive. As they proved on their tour of Scotland and Wales last season they possess a fluent attack built around the almost insufferably talented Joost van der Westhuizen at scrum-half.

Yet the Springboks are vulnerable. They are out of season and at Twickenham they will experience much of the patriotic fervour that confronted the All Blacks last June. This is a much changed England, playing at a beautifully reconstructed stadium with the game standing on the threshold of a new era.

The doubts over Mike Catt's fitness were not exactly dispelled last week when he studiously avoided close questioning on the subject of his injury and appeared to be moving with some discomfort. So much is expected of this young man that he cannot risk going into the game unless he is 100 per cent sure of his ability to last the pace.

His image as the new standard-bearer for a more adventurous style is one that he himself has been promoting these past few days. Better perhaps that he eased the pressure on himself by keeping his own counsel. But Catt, like his predecessor Rob Andrew, will ultimately be at the mercy of his forwards and it is not the least of Jack Rowell's problems that so few of his pack are playing to their best form. One outstanding exception is Martin Johnson, whose duel with Mark Andrews will have a considerable bearing on the outcome. These two are the foremost exponents of front jumping. On Saturday we should discover which of them is, quite simply, the best.

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