IRB tells RFU to take a stronger stance
John Taylor
April 5, 2001

The International Rugby Board has made it very clear that it considers the new agreement between Premier Rugby and the English professional players to be illegal.

The ground breaking contracts announced last week give the clubs primary control over the players and, while guaranteeing the release of players for up to 10 internationals a year, seek to make that conditional on a timetable controlled by the clubs.

At the briefing following the IRB Annual Meeting in Copenhagen Chairman, Vernon Pugh, was careful to stress that the Board regards the dispute as an internal matter at the moment but left nobody in any doubt that the RFU will be expected to assert its authority over the clubs and regain full control of the game in England.

"For us primacy at international level is fundamental to the growth of the game. The other IRB members were very supportive of the RFU," Pugh said. "It is up to the RFU to resolve at the moment - on the face of it there is a direct conflict but we hope it will lead to a permanent settlement."

Returning to the theme later he reiterated, 'this is a foundation stone .... it is fundamental for the RFU to be able to call upon their players as and when they need them."

Deputy Chairman Rob Fisher, from New Zealand, confirmed, "anything which changes availability for international rugby from being "sacrosanct" to "conditional" is not allowed."

Although there was no question of any resolution on the matter I understand that Malcolm Phillips and Bill Beaumont, the English delegates at the Annual Meeting, were told that there could be no compromise and conveyed that information to the RFU Management Board before it met last Thursday. After that meeting the clubs said they were pleased that the RFU had agreed to meet them to discuss their proposals but it now appears they will find the RFU taking a much tougher line than expected.

Although the fine detail of the match schedule for the 2003 Rugby World Cup finals has still to be completed two important decisions have been made. The number of teams will not be reduced to 16 as many critics of the 2000 tournament were advocating but the first stage of the tournament will be played in four groups of five instead of five groups of four with the winners and runners-up from each pool progressing to the knockout stage.

It is a much more equitable system. Each country is now guaranteed four games instead of three and the controversial mid-week play-offs for the last three quarter-final places disappear so that everybody has the same number of matches and roughly the same amount of rest.

They have also admitted that it was a mistake to play all the pool matches on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It made television scheduling very difficult (was a nightmare for commentators) and was unpopular with spectators. In 2003 there will be matches on at least four days a week and they will be spread as evenly as possible.

Matches involving the Six Nations will be scheduled in the evenings as much as possible so that they will be more accessible to European television viewers. More than 90 countries have entered and the qualifying process is already underway.

Two law changes are to be introduced from 1st June. The first is a requirement to lower a line-out jumper safely back to ground after he has been lifted because there are worries about safety at grass roots levels. It will not affect the professional game but the second might encourage the top sides to commit more players to the maul.

At the moment the side in possession at a maul must release the ball as soon as it is halted. In future the maul may be restarted once providing this happens within five seconds. It is a move designed to try to create more space in mid-field.

It was also confirmed that the use of the Television Match Official (video referee) will continue in its current format but it is hoped that there will be at least three different camera angles at all matches so that there is less controversy.

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