Wales start to sing along to England's tune

RUGBY UNION
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The Independent Online
STEVE BALE

English and Welsh officials have reached agreement on dovetailing their domestic seasons and even on a preferred time for the Five Nations' Championship - at the very end of the season - after a highly confidential meeting attended by a handful of influential figures in the game this week.

"We have been singing off the same songsheet to a greater degree than the public hitherto believed," one leading administrator said last night. Thus the Welsh Rugby Union is now in accord with Rugby Football Union proposals contained in the recent RFU commission report for the participation of four English and four Welsh clubs in an expanded European competition next autumn with a parallel Anglo-Welsh championship to include the six remaining English and eight Welsh First Division clubs.

The respective national leagues - in England the Courage Clubs' Championship and in Wales the successor to the Heineken League if the present sponsors withdraw as expected at the end of this season - would continue over the season. The Welsh appear to have accepted also that to stage the Five Nations during May would maximise its television earning potential.

The financial imperative has become more significant than ever in view of the belligerence of English and Welsh clubs towards their unions. Talks with broadcasters and sponsors have led the clubs to expect they could independently strike deals worth pounds 110m over three seasons, with clubs each grossing as much as pounds 1m annually.

This appears to be dependent on the establishment of a fully fledged Anglo-Welsh league that would wholly supersede the present separate arrangements in each country as well as the RFU/WRU plans for a sub-European Anglo- Welsh competition that would of necessity exclude the most successful clubs, i.e. those who had qualified for Europe.

Meanwhile the RFU, which has been having its own talks with broadcasters, anticipates that the vast sums being bandied about would be sustainable only if the package included the Five Nations' Championship.

ITV's three-year investment of up to pounds 20m in the fledgling European Cup, which has begun without English participation, is therefore taken at Twickenham to be a down-payment before the next Five Nations contract comes up for negotiation next year and there is no interest in the rights to domestic rugby alone.

Vernon Pugh, the WRU chairman, reported the conclusions of this week's meeting to his union's general committee on Thursday. So far there has been no equivalent report-back in England but as the "agreement" would seem to satisfy the RFU commission's requirements in almost every particular it is inconceivable there could be any credible objection.

That will not be the end of the matter. England and Wales together may now form an unlikely alliance among the Five Nations, but the Scots and Irish still need to be persuaded and the French have for years objected to any attempt to encroach on the climax of their club championship in May and June.

Then there is the sticking-point between the unions and the Anglo-Welsh clubs. The formation of a united front between Twickenham and Cardiff Arms Park is a necessary defence against the hostility of clubs who have so far had a dusty response to their demand for all the proceeds of European and cross-border rugby.

Last night there was yet another meeting of the main Anglo-Welsh club representatives, and today WRU officials are to meet their First Division clubs. On both sides of Offa's Dyke the clubs have formed themselves into limited companies and are being advised by leading marketing firms in what may end up as two unilateral declarations of independence if the most lurid prognostications become reality.

Gallagher in the crossfire, page 27

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