Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Big Syd: Rugby's Peacemaker

So it seems that Ian Paisley was not the only powerful Ulsterman promoting the spirit of concilation in recent weeks. While the DUP leader was giggling and cracking wise with the likes of Martin McGuinness and New Best Pal Bertie Ahern, at the end of that Road to Dublin down which the good Reverend had long warned his followers against travelling, Syd Millar, the chairman of the International Rugby Board, was also building bridges.

Not to suggest that the warring factions of European rugby were conducting a dispute to compare with that which infected the North of Ireland for so long; but a few short weeks ago the implacability of the various camps in the struggle for the future of the Heineken Cup carried a recognisable whiff of the Northern combatants at their most stubborn.

But back to big Syd. All who hoped for the Heineken rollercoaster to wheeeee! back into action next season hid their heads in hands when Millar, following the decision of the English and French clubs to boycott the tournament, called the move an "absolute disgrace". Following Serge Blanco's (president of the LNR, the French League) proclamation that, for their part, the boycott was "non-reversible," hopes for a Heineken Cup as we have known it taking place next year seemed thin.

Then you read comments like these from Northampton's outspoken chairman, Keith Barwell, which seem to portray rugby's future as containing bloodier battles in the committee room than in any heaving maul: "Syd, listen here....this is for you and all your mates at the IRB and the RFU. You're rowing against the bloody tide. If you want to cling on to power you're doomed.... change is unstoppable. You run off and look after your internationals and rugby dinners and we'll get on with our business'."

It seems, however, that Millar has been at the forefront of the compromise talks which appear to have secured the future of European club rugby's showpiece event. This is dependent on the RFU and Premier Rugby Ltd. (the clubs) agreeing on a new long-form agreement to replace the existing one, which expires in 2009.

Ah! But wasn't the disagreement between these two the reason for the whole shooting match in the first place? Wasn't it the RFU's refusal to allow PRL an equal mouthful of the English slice of the Heineken pie that caused not just the English clubs, but also Serge and his belligerent French mob to storm rugby's Bastille, crying "Liberté"! Wouldn't putting the RFU and PRL in a room together end up like a feature-length Itchy and Scratchy movie?

Seems not. In a perfect illustration of the power of peace, man, and discussions, as opposed to the mortar bombs of belligerent pronouncements, it appears that the two sides responded well to big Syd's Hume-Adams style initiative.

Well enough, anyway, to prompt all sides involved to concur that agreement was in sight, even Serge and the French, whose problem appears not to have been (according to PRL's chief executive Mark McCafferty), as first thought, about how the fixture list will pan out next season alongside the autumn World Cup, but rather about the whole future of the game and their belief that the RFU had dastardly plans afoot to destroy clubs everywhere.

While the RFU and PRL have not yet shook on how their future arrangement will look, they are believed to be closer to a compromise on the issues of the clubs' shareholding in the ERC and the RFU's access to players for internation duty.

All the while the Celtic nations have waited meekly on the sidelines, having the most to lose in the absence of the Heineken Cup, yet having little ostensible power to influence the argument.
Thankfully, what power Irish rugby had was vested in the man capable, through his role as chief steward of international rugby, of chairing the sort of talks required to knock some sense into proceedings.

Of course, the provisional success of Syd Millar's talks wasn't as inspiring as the scenes at Stormont yesterday, with all the talk of history and a time of peace. It was more the case of a bunch of farmers realising that they had backed the tractor over the golden egg-laying goose , and that it was time to call the vet.

Now, as that other peace-making former combatant, Martin McGuinness, said yesterday, they "must overcome the difficulties we face and seize the opportunities that exist."

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