Wheeler's tough endgame; THE MONDAY INTERVIEW

Ian Stafford meets a former Lion at the crux of the power struggle between the players and the establishment
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The Independent Online
It is early, very early, in the morning, but it is the only time that Peter Wheeler, chief executive of Leicester Rugby Football Club, can be seen these days. The former Tigers, England and Lions hooker has a diary as congested as the M25, and few of the commitments are in his initial job brief.

As he sits in the club lounge overlooking Welford Road, the 47-year-old is enjoying an hour's break from the battle between the English Professional Rugby Union Clubs from the First and Second Divisions and the Rugby Football Union, an affair which, although not quite matching roundhead against cavalier, has nevertheless become an almost all-consuming and increasingly sour fight for power.

Wheeler has been, at least up till now, at the forefront of the clubs represented by Epruc as they try to shake the RFU's 125-year tradition and drag the professional game into some kind of reality. Bullish, unbending, determined and, seemingly, holding the aces, Wheeler and his Epruc bedfellows have finally lost their patience with the governing body of English rugby union.

It is a story that has changed and twisted almost every day for the past four months, but with Epruc now raising the stakes, it seems that a climax, however bloody, is looming.

For those who have become increasingly confused with the whole matter, Wheeler reiterates what the top clubs' goals are in all this. "Leicester have been in existence for 110 years, and our aim has always been to play rugby at the highest level," he begins. "This hasn't changed, but the circumstances have. We now have to find an income to support professionalism.

"This is very important, both to the players, who have made career decisions, and to people like me, who are now employed by the game. It's crucial that the new, professional game is run professionally and effectively. Competitions have to be financed so that a broad base of professional rugby can be funded and not just pay a few players a great deal of money.

"This has to be done on a day-to-day basis. We can't have people making such important decisions when they do not directly affect them, and neither can such decisions take two or three months."

Ah, we must be talking about Twickenham, the Union or, as the former England captain Will Carling put it, "the old farts". They, according to Wheeler, are the reason why the battle for power has dragged on for so long that what should have been an exciting start to the first season of professional rugby has been marred by civil war.

"It's only gone on for so long because we, the clubs, want to stay in the Union. If we didn't, we would have gone long ago. It's only because we feel an allegiance to the local and junior clubs, and that we would like to still be a part of a body that is steeped in tradition, that we have so far remained. It's fair to say that the Union have traded on this. Don't forget, they've come from a position of total power, even to the extent that some of their regulations make a mockery of the laws of the land. Now their power's been shaken."

But you need the Union as well, don't you? "To the extent, yes. All we want to do is to run the professional game. We don't want to run international rugby, nor junior or schools rugby. It suits them to let this argument drag on so that the status quo remains the same, but we've now grown fed up waiting and have decided to force the issue."

The Union, of course, see it differently. Their motives, according to Wheeler, are explained by one word: power. "They can't seem able to give up total control. Do you know that the clubs have no representation on the 56-man Union committee, and that there are no Leicester or Bath men on any of the Union's other committees or sub-committees who, incidentally, meet every couple of months or so? We just don't have a say.

"I played 20 years ago and nothing's changed. I remember Roger Uttley walked through the hotel foyer in Paris last year for the England match and recognised the same committee faces who were in control when we were England team-mates."

So much for the Union, then. But what about the alternative, a professional game run, at least at club level, by Epruc? It seems that one minute everyone is trumpeting the good, old-fashioned values of amateurism, even if, in reality, it was shamateurism, and the next minute everyone is trying to grab the filthy lucre, as if the emperor has just thrown a wad of money out of his castle window to the peasants below.

"Well, the main fear I'd like to allay is that we're not taking any money away from the local and junior clubs," Wheeler argues. "Far from it. The huge investment that some people have put into rugby is not designed to just fill a few pockets, but to create a rugby industry. At Leicester, for example, we will spend pounds 300,000 to develop the game locally, getting into the local clubs and schools, and even setting up scholarships at places like Loughborough University. This is the reason why the international players have signed up with us."

Really? "Absolutely. Why should they give up their right to play for England for much less guaranteed money than England are offering by signing with the clubs? It's because they are trying to create a professional club industry.

"They realise that it's no good for the game of rugby if 24 squad players get all the money and then return to their clubs and play with colleagues who get next to nothing. They want everyone to enjoy a professional sport, even a proper wage, and develop a career structure which, if they choose, could keep them in the game well after they retire from playing."

Nevertheless, all this player power does seem a little like a gun being held to the RFU's head. Besides, being banned from playing for England - at least the England at Twickenham - will be a bitter pill to swallow for many of them. With England's first match of the season against Italy due for 23 November, time is running out.

"We don't want that to happen, and neither do the players. We have alternative internationals in place, but it would mean setting up a new infrastructure. We all want England to be successful, but the only way we can seriously compete with the southern hemisphere is to adopt their professional approach. If the RFU fail to make concessions in our favour, then the ultimate action will be that our players, who are now contracted to us, will not be available for the Italy match. I'm sure the debenture holders and sponsors won't be too happy about that."

You can say that again. Even the Lions tour to South Africa seems under threat, with Wheeler's old England team-mate, Fran Cotton, stating that he will not pick rebel players, and the Republic's Louis Luyt, hardly an angel himself, expressing his concern over playing a second-rate squad.

"But we're not saying our players can't play for the Lions, are we?" Wheeler counters. "Let's hope the Union won't be totally pig-headed and bury their heads in the sand over all this."

So what happens now? Will it be pistols at dawn, or an amicable ending to a bitter struggle? Wheeler expects all the Epruc clubs to be in a position to break away from the Union by 11 October. "If need be, we shall do exactly that. The players will not be available for England, and we will break away from the Union. It's up to the Union to find someone who can make a decision."

For their part, the Union will be hoping that the small cracks that seem to have appeared in the Epruc group will widen. They will be encouraged by Will Carling's sudden emergence on to the scene criticising the fact that players have been forced to give up on their country. Wheeler dismisses this emphatically.

"Will Carling's never been in the forefront, not like the leadership shown by our senior players over this issue. Besides, his position is clear. He's involved in a group, Parallel Media, that's been pushing for an alternative structure revolving around a Super League. I know, because they made a presentation to me."

Yet he does accept that the full magnitude of Epruc's proposed plan of action will not be universally supported. "Of the 24 First and Second Division clubs, I'd say 14 are definites, while another six will want to know the full terms. The other four will not come with us because they are in no position to do so."

The odds, however, still seem to be heavily stacked in favour of the clubs, but there is one, rather large grey cloud looming which the likes of Wheeler are growing increasingly concerned about. Epruc may well enjoy a collective stance right now, but it is led by a group of very different people, business people in many cases who may well have a different agenda, and a more selfish agenda, than the rugby men like Wheeler.

"I know what you are saying," Wheeler smiles, somewhat ruefully. "There are definitely people who have got involved who are businessmen. They know nothing about the game, and have no feel for it. They're not doing it for the love of rugby, but they do see a business opportunity created by the rapid growth in popularity of the game.

"It's a concern for me, and it's something that the rugby people will need to keep in check. These men have invested large amounts of money into the game, amounts which they will not walk away from. I appreciate that they have, in some cases, needed to be pretty ruthless and single- minded to have got to where they have in life, and there is a danger that they will take over with a different agenda to mine. We're going to have to make sure that they don't get an unjust reward out of it."

It is turning into one hell of a game of chess, a game in which the likes of Wheeler, the rugby man, will have to be extremely careful. For while he concentrates on toppling the Union's king, he should also be keeping a careful eye on his own position just to make sure that his so-called own ranks do not suddenly seize ultimate power from under his nose.