Allan Massie: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick' in player release dispute

Arguments about the release of non-English internationalists by English clubs before next year's World Cup are likely to continue for months. At present the English clubs, obeying the instructions of Premier Rugby Limited (PRL), are sticking to the letter of the law.

The International Rugby Board's Regulation 9 requires clubs to release players to national squads 35 days before the start of the tournament. Any earlier release might, one would have thought, have been at the discretion of individual clubs, but the PRL insists that all its member clubs should abide by Regulation 9 and not go a step further. If it was the same for everybody there might be no cause for complaint, even though an earlier date of release could scarcely inflict any hardship on the clubs, since the period in question comes during the close season when no club rugby is played.

However, it is not the same for everybody. The RFU has paid the PRL clubs to secure the release of their English players from the beginning of June. Rob Andrew, the RFU's head of elite rugby, also asserts that English players from French clubs have provision for early release written into their contracts. He may get a surprise, but this is not relevant to the immediate argument.

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The countries affected by the PRL's obduracy are Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Argentina. Wales have made their anger public, and Warren Gatland has talked of leaving players from English clubs out of his World Cup squad altogether. This may be a form of psychological warfare. Any Welsh internationalist from an English club is not going to be a happy fellow when he is told to go out and lay his body on the line for Sale or Saracens or whatever but to forget about pulling on the red jersey in the World Cup.

Still there aren't many Welsh or Irish players who will be affected by the PRL's dictatorial decree. There are however an awful lot of Scots, which may be why - so far anyway - Andy Robinson and the Men at Murrayfield have been playing it cool and polite.

Diplomacy, they think, is not best conducted by megaphone. The suspicion is of course that the PRL are holding out for money. Cough up and we release the players; it's the sort of line that Al Capone or the Sicilian mafia or other masters of the Protection racket have always employed. We are understandably reluctant to submit to the tactic, and are trying friendly persuasion, an appeal to the PRL bosses' better nature, which may or may not exist.

Unfortunately they have a tough guy answer to hand, and one calculated to make us cry "ouch".

If, they might say to Gordon McKie & Co, you in Scotland hadn't made such a godawful mess of the transition to the professional game, you would have four pro clubs in Scotland, just as they have in Ireland and Wales, and most of your international players would be based at home, just as the Welsh and Irish players are. Not much use, sadly, to reply that our failure in this respect has benefited some of the PRL's member clubs such as Gloucester, Saracens and Northampton. This won't cut much ice.We can appeal to the IRB, who may or may not be interested, even if we appeal also on behalf of the South Sea islanders and Argentina, perhaps Canada and the USA also. We can ask for fair treatment or a level playing-field. There would be reason on our side since the discrimination being practised by PRL is manifestly unfair, especially in view of the care the RFU claims to have taken to ensure that French clubs release anyone Martin Johnson has his eye on. I have no doubt we are making representations to the IRB, but unless we can get the support of some of the bigger unions who are not affected by the PRL's dog-in-the-manger attitude, I would be surprised if we get much satisfaction from these efforts.

Nevertheless diplomacy may work. However, the advice offered by President Teddy Roosevelt holds good: "speak softly and carry a big stick". The question is what form this should take.

A key point is that Scotland and England are in the same World Cup pool. Consequently it may be held that the PRL's decision to release English players to England but to refuse the release of Scottish players to Scotland will give England an advantage by allowing them a longer period of preparation for the tournament than Scotland will have. So: soft words, first: where is that famous English sense of fair play? Given that England have much greater strength in depth anyway than Scotland, can the English really be comfortable with an arrangement that gives them such an unfair advantage? Surely not? What about sporting spirit, chaps?

If soft words don't work, then we must produce the stick. Its purpose would be to shame the RFU and the PRL. So we might air the suggestion that either they are so desperate to come top of the pool (and avoid a quarter-final with the All Blacks) that they are ready to put their opponents at a disadvantage, or that, more shockingly still, they are actually afraid of Scotland and indeed Argentina.

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The PRL's position is certainly shameful (though we don't need to rub this in yet). Scotland have two warm-up internationals scheduled for August. Player release only 35 days before the start of the Cup means that preparation for these warm-up games will be inadequate. An extra three weeks or even only a fortnight more with the players would be sufficient. The players concerned would at most be only in pre-season training with their clubs. They can train every bit as well with Scotland. The clubs lose nothing.The PRL may hope to get the SRU to pay for player release. There is no reason why it should do so. There is no suggestion that the RFU is paying French clubs for player release because they insist that provision for release is written into players' contracts .

The RFU, a body which has always believed that it represents the true spirit of the game, should speak out for fair play, and recommend that the PRL release players to their national squads. It will indeed be shameful if it doesn't. Over to Rob Andrew. He has a golden opportunity to wipe out the memory of the infamous "hand of Rob" which unlawfully secured England a match-winning penalty in the 1994 Calcutta Cup match. Not that we need dwell on that incident either - not yet anyway.