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Olympics2000

Thursday, 17 August, 2000, 18:18 GMT 19:18 UK
Rugby's big spenders face boot
Leicester's Dean Richards celebrates last season's title
Leicester's Dean Richards celebrates last season's title
England's foremost clubs could face expulsion from European competition under radical reforms designed to punish those breaking maximum salary levels.

All 12 Zurich Premiership clubs, busy preparing to kick off the new league season this weekend, currently have a ceiling of 1.8m for their annual wage bill.

However, strict penalties are in place for overspending, ranging from financial punishments to the ultimate sanction of Heineken Cup or European Shield disqualification.

The clubs have invested 75,000 towards ensuring the salary cap system is properly policed.

Scepticism

Auditing is currently under way, with an expected completion date of next month.

London Irish boss Dick Best recently voiced his scepticism that some clubs were remaining within the 1.8m limit, but English Rugby Partnership chief executive Howard Thomas has warned that any offenders can expect to pay a hefty price.

"The clubs voted unanimously for a salary-cap and 75,000 has been invested into its policing," said Thomas, speaking in his capacity with ERP, the private limited company established to run the elite professional end of English domestic rugby.

"We're committed to being vigorous in audits currently taking place," he said.

Sanction

"Significant financial penalties are in place and the ultimate sanction for deliberate or fundamental breaches of the salary-cap is expulsion from European rugby."

The 12 leading clubs are, though, it has emerged, already owed 300,000 each through two monthly instalments by the Rugby Football Union.

Rob Andrew at this season's launch
Rob Andrew at this season's launch
Under the Rob Andrew/Club England masterplan for English professional rugby, each Premiership club is earmarked to receive 1.8m annually from Twickenham, monthly payments of 150,000.

However, with the new club campaign barely 48 hours away, agreement on that vital document has still to be reached between the clubs and Twickenham.

While RFU chief executive Francis Baron, speaking at the Twickenham launch of the Zurich Premiership, insisted that the money is "available in the bank," sticking points remain as meetings continue to take place.

Not least of these is the thorny subject of automatic promotion and relegation between the Zurich Premiership and National League One, the old Second Division.

Second Division clubs want their champions to be promoted by right, with the Premiership basement club relegated, whereas Premiership club bosses prefer an end-of-season play-off option.

Representatives of the Second Division clubs, led by Worcester's multi-millionaire backer, Cecil Duckworth, are now threatening court action.

Significant

As both Thomas and Baron headed off for further discussions, Andrew hailed the Premiership, which is to benefit from a new three-year, "significant" sponsorship deal from financial services company Zurich.

"I've no doubt that this is the most exciting announcement we've ever made in professional club rugby," said the Newcastle boss.

This season, the 22-game Premiership league will be followed by an 18 Zurich Championship, an end of season play-off competition.

The top eight league finishers will participate, culminating in a grand final at Twickenham on 12 May.

Qualify

Both the league winners and championship victors will qualify automatically for the Heineken Cup in season 2001/2002.

The league will also have a new points system, based on the southern hemisphere's Super 12 format.

Teams will collect four points for a win, with two available in a drawn fixture.

On top of that, teams who score four tries or more in a game will receive one bonus point, as will a losing side if they finish within seven points of their conquerors.

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