Voting reform averts schism : RUGBY LEAGUE

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The Rugby League Council has cleared the decks for far-reaching reforms by agreeing to a major change in its voting structure as well as bringing in a salary cap and a two-year ban on permanent transfers between Britain and Australia.

Yesterday's meeting in Leeds fended off talk of a breakaway by leading sides by bringing in a system that gives First Division clubs three votes each, Second Division clubs two and the former professional clubs in the National Conference one each.

Acceptance of that principle brings closer the possibility of reducing the size of the top division, still scheduled to be 16 when it becomes the Premier League next season.

The League's chief executive, Maurice Lindsay, who had warned of a breakaway if the move failed, maintained that Second Division clubs will still have a say in the future running of the game.

"With a two-thirds majority still required, First Division clubs will still need the support of Second Division clubs to get measures through," Lindsay said.

"It's a fair system. If First Division clubs want to effect changes they are much closer to being able to influence the hearts and minds of other clubs. It's a nice balance."

Clubs also ratified the ban on full-time transfers agreed between Lindsay and his Australian counterpart, Ken Arthurson, recently. Its aim is to stem the drain of leading British players to the Winfield Cup, but it seems certain to face legal challenge on both sides of the world.

The decision to impose a ban on long-term transfers between Britain and Australia rubber-stamped an agreement hammered out between Arthurson and Lindsay at a meeting in Sydney earlier this month. The new regulations come into force immediately, although existing contracts will be honoured.

The action is in response to moves by new Winfield Cup sides in signing up top English players such as St John Ellis and Mike Ford of Castleford, and Wigan's Denis Betts and Frano Botica. "It will give us two years to put the job right, to persuade players to stay in this country," Lindsay said.

The ban will not affect New Zealand or players from other rugby league playing nations. At the same time, clubs agreed to reduce the quota of overseas players from three to two.

"This is a tremendous day for rugby league," Lindsay added. "It shows the spirit of togetherness and compromise, helping us attack the weaknesses in our game and take it forward."

Details of a salary cap for each club based on its income have yet to be revealed, but Council representatives have accepted it in principle. It will, in theory, protect clubs from their own financial excesses, but it is unlikely to produce a more evenly balanced competition, as the wealthier clubs will inevitably have higher spending limits.

Dennis Smith, the Whitehaven prop forward recruited this season from New Zealand, has been banned for three months after admitting taking ephedrine, a banned substance found in many cough and cold remedies.

His punishment is noticeably more severe than that handed out to players who have explained positive results by taking similar substances by mistake in the past. This determination to further clamp down on drugs has been reinforced by the decision to test players at training during the season and in the summer, in addition to the present system of covering one game each weekend, selecting two players from each side.

The Warrington forward, Paul Cullen, will be in plaster from hip to ankle for a month after tearing the medial ligament in his right knee against Castleford on Sunday. It is now feared that he will miss the rest of the season.