The swift and painful return to reality

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How much longer will it be before the realisation hits home that club rugby in this country is going down the tubes? Week after week we read of new backers, new sponsors and new foreign imports, when in fact the game is in terminal meltdown. Am I alone in my despair? Technically, England's top two divisions are bankrupt following one of the most reckless spending binges in sporting history. The combined debt of the 24 clubs, which stood at around pounds 15 million at the start of the season, is mounting by the minute and the dismal attendances in the first four weeks are adding insult to ruinous injury.

English Rugby Partnership, the body charged with the responsibility of running the professional game, is in complete disarray. Kim Deshayes, the chief executive, has, after more than a year of supping from the poisoned chalice, resigned. He has got out in the nick of time. There have been persistent rumours that all is not well at Harlequins where there is investor unrest and a likely change of ownership. The crowds of around 2,500 are far below the break-even point and only a quarter of the numbers turning out to watch their tenants, London Broncos, who have neither the history nor the traditional base of support of their distinguished landlords.

Within the last couple of weeks Ashley Levett, who has pumped a cool pounds 6m into Richmond, received the very unwelcome news that his grandiose plans for the development of a leisure-cum-sports complex at Hillingdon, have been turned down. There was speculation of a merger with Saracens and a link with Broncos, who are less than happy with the welcome they get from Harlequins. So where does this leave Levett, given that there is no possibility of development at the Athletic Ground which is Crown Property, and which cannot provide for the number of spectators required to sustain the massive outlay on Richmond? One senses that, although his pockets may be almost as deep as they were a couple of years ago, his arms have got a lot shorter.

In the second division, things are even worse. There are reports that Moseley and Coventry are having difficulty meeting the weekly wage bills and they are not alone. Wakefield, despite their current solvency as a result of the frequent injections of cash from their patient backers, fear that by this time next year their debt will be unmanageable.

They have invested substantially in a squad of players who have provided them in the strongest team in living memory, yet they have lost their first four games and attracted a paltry 600 for last week's match against Coventry.

If, as they must do sooner or later, ERP, in association with the Rugby Football Union, decree that the two top divisions must be reduced from 24 to 16 clubs there will be more than Wakefield shaking in their down- at-heel shoes. But with a foresight typical of their canny breed, Wakefield believe that they have come up with an insurance policy which could yet provide the blueprint for the salvation of the game at large.

Some time ago, they registered the name of Yorkshire Rugby Football Club Ltd, in the hope that one day the leading clubs in the county would lay aside tribal loyalties and local rivalries and form a powerful force truly representative of the strength of the game in that part of the world. Leeds, the product of the union between Headingley and Roundhay and having spent well in excess of pounds 1m attempting to build a competitive side, are further proof of the adage that two wrongs don't make a right. They are gridlocked in the third division and are likely to remain there.

Yet with sound planning and prudent stewardship Wakefield's concept of a club representing their area of England and playing in a super league of similarly-structured, fully-professional clubs from the other regions, appears to make sense. The clubs, maximum number 10, would not only play in their own domestic league, but would represent England in Europe and in matches against top touring sides. They would be financially viable, attracting television coverage in their own right as well as receiving substantial RFU funding to be used for the promotion and development of the game at all levels within their regions.

With the top players being contracted to the RFU instead of the clubs, and the season structured to safeguard the national interest, the game below the top tiers could revert to amateurism and some semblance of sanity. This is what is happening in South Africa where the initial euphoria over professionalism has faded as fast as the lustre of the Springboks' World Cup success. During the coming months, when the terrible reality of professionalism starts to take effect, clubs will have to make some very hard decisions. Players set loose from their contracts are going to flood a market which cannot, and never could, sustain their extravagant demands. There will be pain and hardship, recriminations and acrimony.

Rugby has been living in a fool's paradise for the past two years but the day of reckoning cannot be far away. What the RFU must not do is follow the example of their cousins in rugby league and shore up the sinking ship. They must let nature take its course no matter how cruel that policy may seem to be. The future of rugby union depends upon it.