Union in the grip of panic

Chris Rea says the RFU should have avoided the turmoil but must now stand firm; Control is the name of the game as Twickenham and the clubs stand toe to toe over the future shape of English rugby
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The Independent Online
RAPPROCHEMENT is in the air, replacing the cordite of last week. The Rugby Football Union's decision to include their president Bill Bishop in the team negotiating the game's future is being interpreted by some as a victory for the clubs and for common sense.

Others see only confusion and uncertainty. Forget the lofty talk of the battle for the soul of the game. This is about control and let there be no doubt that if the RFU surrender to the demands of the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs (Epruc) they will have lost it just as surely as the Test and County Cricket Board, who are at the mercy of the counties.

Now the players are involved and whilst it is fair enough that their views should be heard they are even less likely than the clubs to recognise or respect the wider issues. On the one hand they want a thriving club structure from which they can make a good living and on the other they want a successful England side from which they can make an even better one. For the players, as professionals, the bottom line is money. They are being vilified for selling themselves to the highest bidder, but who can blame them when there are so many bidders bidding such preposterously high sums?

The structure proposed by Epruc may be fine for them but it would not be in the best interests of the game. It is geared solely to generating as much revenue as possible for the 20 top clubs in England.

For Epruc to claim, as they are, that this is simply a matter of Cliff Brittle v The Rest, is a mischievous irrelevance. Brittle's popularity, or lack of it, at headquarters is not an issue. Nor is his supposed allegiance to the counties and junior clubs.

Of course there are those within the RFU who want shot of him, but whoever sits as chairman of the executive committee would have to grasp the same nettles, otherwise he and the RFU would be betraying almost everything and everyone they are empowered to protect.

The RFU's most serious mistake was not to move earlier in the season in order to get the clubs on side. Had they been a proactive body instead of the painfully reactive one they have become they would have produced a blueprint for the professional game with a graded structure of payments to players in line with what the game could afford.

There should have been restrictions on the number of players signed from overseas and from the other home countries and a competitive structure profiting both club and country, not dissimilar to the one they are now proposing.

There are those hawks who will argue that the RFU made their second serious error on Friday when, instead of calling the clubs' bluff, they pulled back from the brink. They might have been surprised by the strength of their support had they cut the cord.

Following Epruc's threat to pull out of next season's domestic competitions, their spokesman, Peter Wheeler, said that the clubs were not Johnny Come Latelys wishing to hijack the game. But that is exactly what they are. The clubs may have been around for 100 years or more but, apart from Wheeler himself, there are very few familiar rugby faces in that group of discontent.

Sir John Hall may know the price of everything but in rugby terms he knows the value of nothing. He and others like him have recognised that England's difficulty has been the clubs' opportunity. Since amateurism was laid to rest in Paris in August, the clubs have gone off like loose cannons; wooing players with promises of money they do not have, organising competitions for which they have no mandate and making demands they know cannot be met.

Their argument, that they had no alternative once they had been thrown into a situation not of their making, does not stand up. The whole point of the RFU's moratorium was to give everyone time to consider the ramifications of professionalism.

Instead, the clubs, with Newcastle in the van, set the inflationary ball rolling - and put rugby on the road to bankruptcy. From that moment it was every man for himself and to hell with the consequences. Then, panic. How do we pay the bills? Wales? Europe? The World? Freak shows like Bath v Wigan? Television? Why not all of them?

Central to the clubs' plans is television and they remain bullish that they have a deal which would support annual wage bills of around pounds 1m per club. This is crucial because if that deal is not in place Epruc have little to bargain with.

It is hard to believe that any of the main television players would risk their chance of pitching for the rights to international matches in the forthcoming round of contractual negotiations by aligning themselves with the clubs.

Quite properly, the RFU have insisted that they should conduct all television negotiations and so far that has been accepted by the broadcasters. Sky, I understand, have committed themselves to the RFU and unless there has been a reversal of policy the BBC would not consider club competitions in isolation from internationals. Neither would ITV. The only reason they paid the amount they did for the European Cup was to stake their claim for next season's negotiations. Without the increased bargaining power which comes from television, how long, I wonder, would the leading players' loyalty to the clubs last?

Epruc also seem to believe that they have a product which is universally appealing. It is not and this season, with the exception of Bath and Harlequins, the quality of the First Division has been abysmal.

Rugby, like cricket, is fuelled not by the clubs but by the international game. Rugby can no more than cricket afford a fully professional sport, which is why the wages paid to England's top cricketers reflect more closely the market value of the sport than the sums at present on offer to their equivalents in rugby.

On balance, the RFU are probably right to keep the channels of communication open. But show any frailty and they will have to live with the fact that never in the history of sport would so much have been given by so many to so few.