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Saturday, May 9, 1998 Published at 01:40 GMT 02:40 UK

Sport: Rugby Union

RFU strikes leagues deal with clubs
image: [ Rugby Union: marred by arguments since the game turned professional ]
Rugby Union: marred by arguments since the game turned professional

England's leading rugby union clubs have won their battle with the sport's governing body after the Rugby Football Union agreed to expand the top two divisions to 14 teams each and accepted a boycott of European games next season.

The agreement between the clubs, players and the Union could spell the beginning of the end to rows that have marred the sport since it turned professional in 1995.

The new structure, which should last seven years, was agreed after months of negotiations and comes as the third change to relegation rules in as many years.

The deal also means that:

  • Players will sign a three-way contract with both their club and the RFU
  • England players will be restricted to a limited number of club games
  • Play-offs will be held to decide which teams make up the numbers in the new-look Allied Dunbar leagues

Bristol will play London Scottish and Rotherham will meet London Irish in the play-offs for places in the top division.

Both Exeter and Fylde have been spared the drop from Premiership Two thanks to the changes while four clubs are promoted from Jewson League One - Worcester, Leeds, London Welsh and Rugby.

Graham Smith, chairman of the RFU negotiating team, said the RFU Management Board and the RFU Council "voted overwhelmingly" for the new agreement.

"There will be a sigh of relief throughout English rugby," said Mr Smith.

"Both sides made concessions because the alternative was unacceptable."

Clubs will play on international match weekends to help avoid a fixture log jam at the end of the season.

Next year's club games will continue during the World Cup and what will become the Six Nations with the admission of Italy.

Mr Smith added: "We are trying to ensure that there is not a closed shop in League One but we must give as many clubs as possible security to invest."

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