Union men must stand and be counted

Chris Rea argues that it is time the sport's governors showed some unity
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The Independent Online
If ever the Rugby Football Union needed men of stout hearts and powerful intellects, it is now. But judged on their recent record there is precious little evidence of either. It is hard to think of any governing body in history which has made more mistakes in a lifetime than the RFU has made in the year since the game recklessly opened its doors to professionalism. Crippled by debt, riven by internal debate, on the point of expulsion from the Five Nations' championship and about to be deserted by their clubs, the RFU are on the brink of disaster.

Yet just one backward step now and they will have blown forever one of the most prized legacies in the world of sport. It would be a colossal betrayal from which the only victors would be the handful of clubs in England and Wales, who are shamelessly holding the game to ransom and of course Rupert Murdoch. Predictably, there are still those within the RFU who seek appeasement and following the clubs' most recent threat to break away there have been the usual conciliatory noises from Twickenham. Forget it lads. It is not reconciliation the clubs want but rebellion, and the sooner they are sent packing the better.

Reports of agreement between the two sides in May had little or no substance. There was never any chance that English Professional Rugby Union Clubs Limited, the self- appointed guardians of the leading clubs, would be happy when they discovered that their annual share of the pounds 87.5m from BSkyB would be roughly pounds 250,000 each. As a result of their spending sprees on players, the running costs of the majority of clubs in Divisions One and Two work out at pounds 2m per club and on that basis not even Sir John Hall's famed negotiating skills could come up with a deal which accommodated the needs of the RFU and the clubs.

Epruc have claimed all along that they could negotiate a much better deal on their own. But if they can agree a sum which fully satisfies the appetites of the clubs it will be one of the greatest coups, not to say cons, of all time. By my reckoning they will need between pounds 30m and pounds 40m per year and if their chosen television route is satellite then clearly the main chunk of the revenue will have to come from Sky since sponsors and advertisers are unlikely to be ecstatic about weekly viewing figures which struggle to reach six figures.

Before they leap, Epruc might like to ponder the fate of the Scottish Open Golf Championship which, a few years ago, was in the rudest of health. Sponsored from shoe spike to head visor, it was played at Gleneagles before vast crowds and a large BBC television audience. It boasted one of the strongest fields on the European tour and offered massive prize money. Within a couple of years of the event being switched to Sky it is almost unrecognisable. Played at Carnoustie, there is no sponsor, the crowds have dropped, so has the prize money and, most significantly of all, the top players have vanished. If that experience is anything to go by it would not be long before the clubs were back at Twickenham with the begging bowl.

The only problem is that by that time the headquarters of the English game would, in all probability, have become an overspill car park for Tesco. The RFU are themselves in a financial pickle. Incredibly, they have run up a debt of pounds 34m, almost a third of which is due to be repaid next summer. Without any matches at Twickenham this season, without the financial support of sponsors and advertisers, with the collapse of their marketing operation and with a queue of debenture holders demanding their money back, the RFU would be bankrupt and Twickenham would be in the hands of the receivers.

It is a terrifying scenario but is this, one wonders, Epruc's hidden agenda behind their actions? By breaking the RFU they would return in triumph through the main gates at Twickenham and take over the running of the game. If that prospect doesn't scare the pants off all those who have a care for the future of the game then nothing will. So far Epruc have shown themselves to be totally incapable of governing themselves, let alone the English game.

Their own financial position is hardly secure and they have split into two groups, the one led by the owners - the principal architects of the present anarchy. They have swamped England with mercenaries from all parts, which ultimately will have a calamitous effect on the development of young English talent and the domestic games in Scotland and Ireland. Not only that, but they have thrown out the welcome mats to rugby league players who wish to supplement their incomes with a few months' hard labour in the union code.

Of much more concern than the physical damage those players will be doing to themselves by playing 12 months a year, is the baleful effect if will have on their understudies, who will have to come cold into first-team rugby midway through the season after weeks of frustration and a lower standard of play in the reserves. Outrageous, but once again the lessons learned by other sports have gone unheeded.

With the support of the Welsh clubs there is every reason for Epruc to feel even more bullish now. Yet, curiously, from this alliance comes just a chink of light for the RFU if, for once, they can present a united front. After weeks of hurling insults over the garden wall, England and Wales now find themselves in the same boat. Both Scotland and Ireland have relied heavily on Welsh support to help them maintain their position against the RFU and would therefore be unlikely to abandon their allies in their hour of greatest need by agreeing to play against any rebel international teams put out by the English and Welsh clubs.

It is possible, therefore, that England could find a way back into the Five Nations. And because they can no longer deliver on their deal with Sky as a consequence of the clubs' action, they will be free to join the other home unions in negotiations with a terrestrial broadcaster. The England team would be very different from the one we know, but then so is the game.