THE FIVE NATIONS

 

There will be genuine relief throughout the sporting world that the Five Nations Rugby Championship has been saved. After months of brinkmanship and bickering over England's unilateral decision to sell the TV rights to rugby's oldest and most prestigious championship without consultation with the other home unions, it appears that the Twickenham authorities have been forced to climb down as the Welsh, Scottish and Irish unions preserved their united front in opposing England's move.

Details of the new deal on the television rights for the championship will not be officially revealed until Monday, but it will be a major surprise if the renegotiated arrangement does not include an even split of the TV revenue between all the home unions and a compromise over the transmission of the games between satellite and terrestrial television. This is a very significant departure from England's original £87.5 million deal with BSkyB, which was made in the confident expectation that the other nations would follow in signing deals with the satellite broadcaster for much smaller amounts.

Rugby union officials at Twickenham, who are under siege from their premier clubs over funding the new professional era in the game, vastly underestimated the mood in the other home unions to their preemptive deal with BSkyB. Their attitude, which bordered on arrogance on a number of occasions, has softened in recent days as the union reels from crisis to crisis. A recent House of Commons move to have the Five Nations added to Britain's eight "listed events"

the sporting crown jewels which cannot be shown exclusively on satellite TV may have concentrated minds in Twickenham. There has also been pressure from multi million pound sponsors who are deeply unhappy with the current turmoil in the English game.

The dispute over the TV rights once again underlines how sport is being used by television predators like Sky. The traditions of great sporting events mean little when vast sums of money are put on the table. Having forced the issue on professionalism in rugby with its $550 million (£338 million) deal with the main southern hemisphere countries after the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, it was only a matter of time before Mr Murdoch attempted a similar exercise in the northern hemisphere.

For once he has not had it entirely his own way. Although the new deal is certainly a compromise and will definitely put more money in the pockets of the IRFU and their Welsh and Scottish counterparts, the three unions deserve some congratulations for trying to preserve the integrity of a championship by standing up to both England and the TV moguls.