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Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Other Unions/ Teams: RFU looks at next move in poker game

By Mark Souster

THE RFU claimed last night that England’s top clubs are seeking a £10 million annual bounty as the price for peace in their war with the governing body. In exchange, the clubs would guarantee to release the players for the extra training and preparation weeks being sought by Andy Robinson, the England head coach, during the autumn internationals and the Six Nations Championship and give him the access that he believes he needs during the build-up to the defence of the World Cup.

The issue is at the heart of the vitriolic dispute that, if it is not resolved, is destined for a showdown in the High Court at the end of February.

The proposal was made last week, when Premier Rugby Ltd (PRL) met the RFU’s management board in emergency session. The union is considering its negotiating position. A game of high-stakes poker seems set to be played out.

“As we already give the clubs about £10 million a year, they are in effect wanting a doubling of their money,” Martyn Thomas, the union’s chairman, said. “Premier Rugby has therefore put a tag of £19-20 million as the price for peace. They are the sellers, we are the buyers. Whether that is an acceptable situation with regard to us delivering a winning England, which has to be our duty, I doubt. The price is not realistic. The management board has to consider what it can afford.”

Thomas did seem to hint, however, that there could be room for manoeuvre and any financial settlement would have strings attached. Any deal would run from World Cup to World Cup, or six months thereafter, and not until 2012 as the clubs wanted, according to Thomas. Additional funding would reward clubs who produced England players but would also enable clubs who provided the bulk of the England team to have bigger squads of comparable quality so that they would not be at a disadvantage during the domestic season.

If an agreement could be thrashed out, both sides accept that it is too late to affect this year’s Six Nations. Negotiations are aimed at a longer-term solution, under which England would have the players for a fortnight before the autumn games and for a week before and right through the Six Nations. The players would not be able to play for their clubs during the championship’s rest weekends.

Both sides were back in court yesterday arguing over the dates for a hearing on the legality of, and reasons for, the union’s decision to dispense with the Long Form Agreement. The union had wanted the full hearing put back until April, but the judge ruled that there was insufficient reason to do so. It will now take place one week later, on February 27, unless both agree to back down in what is becoming an increasingly expensive exercise.

The RFU has resubmitted its defence twice and now changed the basis of its argument and also its QC, with Gavin Kealey replacing Michael Beloff. It now claims that relations with the clubs have broken down irretrievably and that a joint venture going forward is not possible. Interim costs to cover the delays have been awarded to Premier Rugby.

In the circumstances, the clubs feel that they have the union on the back foot legally and believe that the RFU has made a mess of its case. Mark McCafferty, the PRL’s chief executive, said: “They have spent a lot shaping and reshaping their case and that case is questionable anyway.”

He disputed that the clubs had demanded an extra £10 million. “I don’t recognise that figure at all,” he said. “We have discussed compensation for the Robinson plan, but we are waiting for them to come back to us. They have created such a tight timetable that there is no chance of having an agreement in place for this season. We are looking to the future now.”

On the broader issue of the £10 million revenue from the RFU, he said that this covered the cost of paying England players, running academies and myriad other expenditures. “The net figure to us is virtually zero,” he said. “It is a nonsense to intimate that they give us that money for nothing.”

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