The International Rugby Board, fresh from blocking England's bold attempt to host the 2007 World Cup, has abandoned its hard-line stand on this year's tournament in Australia by agreeing to pay almost £4.5m in participation fees to the 20 competing nations. This may or may not be enough to ease the threat of disruption from a variety of players' unions, which are haggling over everything from profit shares to so-called "intellectual property rights", but it signals a change of tack by one of the most conservative and secretive governing bodies in world sport.
Agreement was reached in Sydney on Thursday night, at the end a two-day conference for managers and coaches. In addition, Italy and Tonga signed the participation agreement, thereby accepting a fixture list loaded against them in terms of rest time between matches. The organisers also announced that matches at the Colonial Stadium in Melbourne would be played with the roof shut – England take on Samoa there in the third of their pool fixtures – and confirmed that Premiership-style bonus points would be on offer to teams scoring four or more tries and sides losing by seven points or less.
Each country will receive a participation fee, based on their progress in the tournament. First-round losers will collect almost £170,000; defeated quarter-finalists will pick up more than £275,000; while the last four will each collect almost £315,000. Not that the major unions will be performing cartwheels. England will lose £27m in gate and sponsorship money this autumn, because the World Cup prevents them from hosting three sell-out internationals at Twickenham.
Wales intend to name a World Cup training squad later this month, after finalising personnel for the five new regional sides due to take the field at the start of next season.
* Auckland Blues failed to scale the heights but did enough to earn a 33-9 Super 12 victory over South Africa's Cats yesterday. The win ensures the Blues a home semi-final in two weeks' time and they are almost certain to win the round-robin section of the competition. Only Wellington Hurricanes, who play at Eden Park in the final round-robin match next week, can pip Auckland if they beat New South Wales Waratahs and then beat the Blues, but they will need maximum points to do it.
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