The week of living dangerously

Chris Hewett reports on the moves which brought a sport to the brink of a breakway
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THE most dramatic week in English rugby politics since the schism of 1895, when union and league went their different ways, saw the wheel turn almost full circle from a boycott by the clubs to an apparent softening of Twickenham's hard-liners.

Friday's announcement that Bill Bishop, the popular and conciliatory President of the Rugby Football Union, is to take an active role in solving the dispute with the senior clubs was a clear indication that the tide had turned. As late as Thursday night Cliff Brittle, the embattled RFU executive committee chairman and number one bogeyman in the eyes of the clubs, was insisting that he had the full support of his negotiating team and that there was no reason for him to step aside. He remains chairman of the negotiating committee, but Bishop is the crucial figure - at least in the clubs' eyes.

"Had we been negotiating with Bill Bishop, Tony Hallett [the RFU secretary] and, say, John Jeavons-Fellows [the experienced RFU committee man beaten by Brittle in this year's executive elections], this would have been solved weeks ago," the Bristol administrator, David Tyler, a vocal supporter of the clubs' demands for competitive and economic autonomy, said.

The breakdown in relations was sparked by last Sunday's decision by the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs, the body representing First and Second Division clubs, to boycott a meeting with the RFU. "The RFU had insinuated that Epruc did not represent the views of club members and were clearly looking to create divisions in our ranks," Tyler said. "We didn't want to give them the opportunity so we stayed away."

That decision pushed Brittle and company on to the offensive and on Tuesday the RFU negotiators reasserted in unusually blunt language their determination to retain complete control of the game.

The clubs held an emergency board meeting on Thursday and decided to go for broke, opting to pull out of next season's Courage League and Pilkington Cup competitions and organise their own. It looked like a breakaway every bit as clear cut as that of 101 years ago.

Leverage on the RFU then came from two other directions. Even as the clubs were making their announcement, senior players' representatives including the Wasps captain Lawrence Dallaglio and his opposite number at Bath, Phil de Glanville, were telling the RFU that their support could not be taken for granted. And there was also a hasty meeting between Epruc and the autocratic South African power broker Louis Luyt, at which the possibility of an Anglo-South African club link was broached.

"When the RFU came out firing on Tuesday, it was no more than we expected," the Bath manager, John Hall, said. "They needed to present a united front but it was pretty clear that there was considerable turmoil behind the scenes. Certainly there was no element of brinkmanship from Epruc. We were, and remain, deadly serious in our stance because we are fighting for our survival."

Tyler confirmed this. "What have we to lose? We get nothing from the RFU anyway so there is no reason not to force the issue. This is big business . . . and there is no way we can run that business effectively at the whim of whoever might be in charge of the RFU. We are not interested in controlling anything other than the areas in which we have direct involvement - that is to say, the club competitions.

"In my view, the RFU should now accept that we are the people who can make a success of club rugby in the professional era. Look at the cock- ups we've had this season over player registration, fixture dates and relegation. They simply would not have occurred under our own jurisdiction."

Sources close to Epruc say that the clubs had negotiated a television rights deal with a major broadcaster, despite Brittle's insistence on Tuesday that the broadcasters had said they would talk only with the governing body.

At the end of a fraught week, it looks as if the clubs had more in their armoury than Brittle thought. Bishop is unlikely to underestimate them to the same degree.