Time to enlist an experienced negotiator

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The Independent Online
I read a lot of newspapers in the course of my work. One of the many things that have struck me in the last few turbulent weeks is how little of the troubles of English rugby has spilled over from the sports pages on to the news pages and into the leader columns.

Those who are employed to instruct and entertain us on the great questions of the day, have been equally quiet. For where is that high moral tone for which Hugo Young is renowned? His voice is not heard. Where is Polly Toynbee? She is silent. Is there no sound even from William Rees-Mogg? We listen, and we listen in vain.

From all this I conclude that rugby is not quite as important in our national life as some people think it is. The only player the majority of citizens could name is Will Carling, and that would partly be for reasons unconnected with the game of rugby. If there were a comparable row taking place in football or cricket, we may be sure that there would be more chunks of weighty comment flying around the place.

But cricket and football have had their rows. Their structures are in place, more or less. There is much that the Rugby Football Union and the would-be professional clubs can learn from the organisation of these two sports. Most of such knowledge would consist of mistakes to be avoided.

There is, however, a good deal to be said for the division between the Football Association and the Football League. Something very similar is inevitable in rugby union. The RFU would be like the FA. As Peter Wheeler, of Leicester, has said, the professional clubs do not want to tinker with the laws. My guess is that they will indeed be modified in the interests of greater movement and more "accessibility" - but that these changes will come about because of pressure from the television companies rather than because they are wanted by the clubs themselves.

As far as competitions are concerned, however, the clubs are fully entitled to impose their views on the RFU. The union's attachment to the Divisional Championship is quite extraordinary. The spectators do not flock to it. The players resent it. The new managers, such as John Hall, of Bath, are against it. It is a complete waste of time and effort.

If the attachment to the old Divisional Championship is extraordinary, the new one proposed by the RFU beggars belief. Argentina, and perhaps Italy and Romania - who knows? - are to be brought in as well. At the same time the RFU proposes to restrict those selected for the divisions to those qualified for England. It has already quietly dropped (or I think it has dropped) its limitation on foreigners, including Welshmen, Scotsmen and Irishmen, in First Division sides.

If it attempted to enforce any such restrictions, it would come to grief in the law courts. And if it persists with its comparable rule for the divisions, the RFU may find itself in similar trouble, always assuming that these artificial and unnecessary divisions continue to exist, as I hope they do not.

Those rugby commentators who write off the claims of the clubs and the players as mere pretensions, do not seem to understand the law. They should try to get hold of the judgment of Mr (later Lord) Justice Slade, in the case of Derek Underwood and the MCC over the Kerry Packer "circus." They might also have a look at the recent judgment of the European Court in the case of the Belgian footballer who was kept with a club against his will. United Kingdom law has always been against restraint of trade: European law, which now takes precedence over the home-grown variety, is even more opposed to it.

There are further lessons to be learnt from cricket. The truth is that the County Championship cannot properly support a fully professional structure. The results are that professional cricketers are underpaid and that the game has been vulgarised by a variety of silly competitions. More important: there is no place now for the gifted amateur of the past. I hope Dr Gwyn Jones (assuming he passes his exams, as I am sure he will), will be able to play open-side flanker in the first-class game for as long as he likes.

I do not want to be gratuitously offensive - heaven forbid - but, most of those involved in recent negotiations or non-negotiations do not seem to be up to the job. The one man who has spent his entire life settling disputes does not appear to have been greatly concerned in the matter. I refer to Sir Pat Lowry, of Wasps, who was head of Acas from 1981 to 1987. Indeed, no industrial dispute was complete without the presence of Sir Pat at some stage. Sometimes he settled it, sometimes not. But at least he would know what he was doing. This is more than can be said of most of rugby's negotiators. Call in Sir Pat Lowry. That is my message for the week.