In Touch with Mark Dobson

IT WOULD be nice just once if we heard an ounce of sense from officials in rugby.

The game cannot seem to get from one week to the next without slumping into a new crisis.

We hear that the game has never had it so good with the quality of the professional sport on show.

England's success is all down to this base it has now, a secure, professional one which will see the national side go onto to win the World Cup.

What absolute nonsense. If this theatre of dreams called the Premiership is supposed to be providing a stage for the national team to flourish then someone had better shut the curtains because the people in charge have long since fluffed their lines.

Once again this week we have seen the wonderful world of the Premiership in full flight as the owners begin to get twitchy with the High Court date looming.

English Second Division Rugby will take their case to court on March 26 to try to force an issue which has now been dragging on for months. ESDR, not surprisingly, want to know what their clubs are playing for this season as we enter the final stretch.

Cecil Duckworth - Worcester's benefactor and ESDR chairman - returns home today from holiday to give the campaign for justice in rugby more momentum. At present, ESDR and English First Division Rugby are further away from each other than they have ever been despite months of 'talking'.

The men from the Premiership have certainly been talking this week on topics ranging from the Rugby Football Union, promotion and relegation and, disgracefully, throwing Ireland out of the Six Nations. Such is the desire to get these international 'inconveniences' out of the way in the time for the farcical Zurich Championship, that they will go to any level to make the sponsors happy. The usual line is: "the sponsors have put in millions and they deserve to be treated right."

But what about the bigger picture? The Irish Government has decided to postpone the internationals and that decision is for the good of the country in an attempt to keep the disease out. It is also to try and stop the spread - which is common sense, you would think.

The situation is nobody's fault - there is no-one to blame.

However, this made little difference to Premiership clubs. Owners were up in arms that they might lose their international stars for these inconvenient matches.

These are the matches that they say the Premiership is supposed to be supportive of. The competition which will reap the rewards of professional rugby. Northampton, however, wanted something else. Throw out the Irish was the call. If they cannot fulfil their fixtures then let's go back to the Five Nations.

"The fact of the matter is that the Irish have called these games off," said Northampton owner Keith Barwell.

"I believe that they should be told that if they cannot fulfil their fixtures it should return to Five Nations just for this year," he added.

"You can't drag these things on. The administration of rugby is in a poor state as it is.

"The rugby administrators have no chance to organise another match if they are given a date of 30 days after the last case of foot-and-mouth.

"You could go 29 days and then there's another outbreak and, of course, there's the Lions tour to consider," he added.

Because we live in a society which actively encourages the culture of blame, it was inevitable we would get some nonsense emanating from the 'elite'.

More huff and puff came from Bristol owner Malcolm Pearce who, because the RFU have still to release funding to top clubs because of the on-going dispute over promotion and relegation, threatened to pull his club out of their match with Saracens.

He made a rather hasty U-turn when Saracens boss Nigel Wray reminded him, EFDR were supposed to be a united outfit.

Pearce made the call without any thought for the supporters who have now seen just how meaningless the Zurich Premiership is to rugby's hierarchy.

Leicester will be crowned as rightful champions but the men in suits are now more interested in the also-rans tournament - The Zurich Championship.

In an astonishing attack on the game and the RFU, Pearce said: "We will not be playing any more professional rugby down here at Bristol rugby club, and we will not be playing at Saracens, unless the RFU come to the table and sign up and say what we will be doing for the next five years.

"Unless the RFU sort out the agreement with the clubs, we are not going to play at Saracens next week. I will bring the RFU to the table by forcing the issue. If it works it works, if it doesn't then I'll take the consequences.

"I'll speak with Nigel Wray at Saracens and make sure that he is not out of pocket. He can have the money and have the points if he wants them. I'm sure that I'm contracted to play but not contracted to lose money.

"We have pontificated for two-and-a-half years with the RFU and not got anywhere. I see no way that the RFU want to address the situation. If they want to fine me for bringing the game into disrepute, or ostracise me, I've done my bit.

"I think there is a sinister agenda at the RFU and if they want victory they can have it.''

He continued: "I went to the EFDR meeting two weeks ago and couldn't believe it. We were there for seven hours and got absolutely nowhere.

"I told Fran Cotton about our plight at that meeting and all he could do was smile. The RFU run the game no better than a parish council.

"But if you don't get the support of the RFU then you can't go anywhere and can't do anything.This is a cry for help. Sooner or later I'm going to pull the rug and there are a lot of other Premiership clubs who are going to do the same.

"Whether we all do it together or not I don't know. If I'm on my own then I'm on my own.

"I have enormous admiration for the RFU in deciding to do nothing, they are past masters at it.

"No-one could be more adept at it and for that I admire them but underneath that I think they're bastards.

"I've no respect for anyone at the RFU at the moment and the organisation. I think it is great shame. They have used and abused the club owners now for over five years and it can't go on much longer."

The after-effects from this blast were the predictions of a split involving the Premiership and the RFU. Wray said that something would happen in the very near future which would enable clubs to decide their own destinies.

It would be nice if teams such as Worcester and Leeds actually knew what they were playing for in National One this season. And for Wray, the situation has gone on far too long.


"We are forming our own plan, essentially so we can get on with life," he said, adding that the clubs would make their move "in the very, very near future".

"The end of the week would be too soon, but in a few weeks absolutely definitely," he said.

"We are not in negotiations with the RFU. We have called a halt to it all. There comes a time, after nine months and numerous final dates, when you have to ask yourself: 'Do I want to be in business with these people?' We are formulating a plan, it will be decisive, positive and we will run our own destinies.

He added: "The Premiership clubs have created arguably one of the best English sides of all time, which is obviously generating great support for the game. At the moment the RFU are making record profits and the clubs are making record losses - there must be something wrong somewhere. We will wait and then all the Premiership clubs will act as one."

This 'professionalism' is a wonderful thing, a better contradiction in terms you could not find.

These are dark days indeed for the game of rugby.