Unrest widens as Welsh clubs announce breakaway

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The tangled web that is rugby union was confused further yesterday when the Welsh First Division clubs announced their intention to recommend to their membership that they break away from the Welsh Rugby Union and join forces with their English counterparts, who shocked the Rugby Football Union by announcing their intention to split from them on Thursday. The Anglo-Welsh club tournament will now go ahead in defiance of the recent edict to the contrary by the WRU chairman, Vernon Pugh.

However, the WRU last night defied their top clubs to go it alone with their threat of a breakaway. "If that is their wish, then so be it," David Rees, a WRU official, said. "There are 221 clubs who form the union and we are only talking about 12 here."

There was also doubt about the break itself. Cenydd Thomas, the chief executive of the Swalec Cup holders, Pontypridd, said: "I just don't know what is going on. I don't consider the people representing us at the meeting had any mandate to make decisions or issue statements.

"All I knew that there was going to be a meeting to discuss the move by the English clubs and to examine possible options for tournaments. Then there was to be a full meeting and a report back to members of FDRL [First Division Rugby Limited] on Wednesday."

The RFU was in placatory mood as they responded to Epruc's declaration of intent. Tony Hallett, the RFU's secretary, appealed for patience on all sides after stating that Epruc and the RFU would be meeting early next week in an attempt to solve this latest crisis assailing the game.

Hallett was unhappy at the prospect of a third special general meeting this year, which it is thought the clubs may call, saying: "An SGM would not help. It would unsettle the government of the game and I would ask anybody who has that thought in their mind to be patient."

The RFU were accused of showing no decisive leadership by Epruc's chief executive, Kim Deshayes. Confirming the clubs' intention to break away, he said on BBC breakfast television yesterday: "It's a sad day for rugby. We have been talking to the RFU for three months now and they haven't even let the ball out of the scrum. The game needs clear and decisive leadership and we believe there is a vacuum there because of the inner turmoil at the RFU."

The RFU denied the charge of infighting and indecisive leadership and insisted that they are 95 per cent of the way to an agreement, but unfortunately it appears that the last few points carry most weight. The clubs, in addition to wanting to run the finances for their competitions (both broadcasting and sponsorship), also want to be responsible for disciplinary matters and the registration of players.

The RFU, apart from having the infrastructure in place, which the clubs say they also have, to cover registration and discipline, also feels that the game should still be run from Twickenham and that a sport needs a governing body.

Hallett said: "If they mean complete independence it would be the first sport not to have a governing body and I can't believe they mean that." But he acknowledged that the RFU's relationship with the clubs was "tenuous, fractious and difficult."