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Jeff Probyn: Clubs face oblivion if RFU take on PRL over Europe

Financial Oblivion are the words used by Bath’s owner Bruce Craig when describing the possible fate facing the RaboDirect Pro12 if they don’t join the new Rugby Champions Cup.

There was also a threat of legal action should the IRB or Unions try to interfere or stop it. So there it is: Capitulate or there will be out and out war between the clubs and Unions.

If it is war, the big question is, would the RFU have the courage to do what’s needed to win?

I have no doubt the IRB will be up for the fight given the possible consequences of ceding power to a few rich club owners, or that if the French Union (FFR) remain strongly against any new competition, that their clubs (LNR) will back down rather than face a possible ban from the FFR – but the RFU are different.

Not since the first days of professionalism when Cliff Brittle was chairman have the RFU stood against PRL (the Premiership clubs) or its predecessors and it would be hard for them to take such a stand now, especially this close to the World Cup – but not impossible.

PRL are using the ‘carrot and stick’ approach with the Union in trying to gain their support. The ‘carrot’ is the promise of a more financially stable Premiership by their running and organising the competition in Europe.

The ‘stick’ is possible legal action and the threat of withholding players from international preparations if the RFU refuse to give their backing for the new competition.

If the RFU were strong enough to face up to this challenge from the clubs they could possibly rescue not just the English but the European game from total meltdown.

It would be incredibly painful and could involve going back to those dark days of turmoil and bankruptcy that were so much a part of those early days of the professional game in England – but let’s imagine this possible scenario…

The RFU vote against the formation of the new competition and the PRL retaliate by not releasing players for international duties stating primacy of contract and launch a restraint of trade action against the Union and the IRB.

The RFU then withdraw from negotiations to pay the clubs for player release and announce that they will form six regional teams to take part in Europe.

The RFU enter negotiations with NCA (National Clubs Association) for players to be brought into the EPS along with a number of elite academy players and, at this point, the RFU announce that from now on they will centrally contract the players for regions as they have done for the England Sevens squad.

This would enable the RFU to save the money currently paid to the PRL clubs for playing English Qualified Players and it would allow the RFU to contract only EQP for each region, should they wish to do so.

To avoid any legal or financial repercussions each step would be brought in as contracts between the RFU and PRL end, while at the same time the RFU would withdraw all non-contracted funding from PRL clubs.

With agreement from government, the RFU announce that the academies are to be removed from the Premiership clubs and transferred to universities and colleges in each of the regions along with all accompanying funding.

The PRL clubs would then form a break-away game, but without the funding from the RFU, those that don’t have rich owners prepared to cover the shortfall would quickly find themselves in financial difficulties.

Then the RFU call a special general meeting to create regional teams and restructure the leagues with a return of limited funding for all levels of the game, which is approved.

The season is restructured so that the leagues feed into a county championship that acts as a number of trials for regional selection and the European games are moved to a time that fits better with the French season to appease LNR.

Players in England would have to make tough choices when it comes to contract renewal.

Do they stay with the PRL clubs with no hope of international honours or take a chance and sign for the RFU regions with a chance to play for England and the extra earning potential that brings?

There would be short term consequences for the national side as all the current squad members are contracted to PRL clubs but that would last only until either contracts were renewed or new players emerged through the ranks, which could be just a single season.

The potential outcome would be a stable league structure in England with the RFU funding just six regional teams instead of the 24 clubs in the Premiership and Championship.

The European competitions would remain under Union control, enabling them to continue the role of developing rugby across the whole of the European rugby community while PRL would have caught the bus to their own Financial Oblivion!

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