THE AMERICAN politician Hubert Humphrey once passed caustic judgement on the democratic process by declaring: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously". That was the best part of 40 years ago, when rugby union embraced democracy in the way Syria embraces snowboarding. Indeed, the sport was so unashamedly feudal in its outlook during the mid- 1960s that William Webb Ellis was less relevant to the oval-ball game than William the Conqueror.
It is different now, thanks to professionalism and the market forces it let loose. National unions the world over have accepted that rugby can no longer be run as a private fiefdom, sharp-suited businessmen have replaced sozzled wing commanders in many of the positions of greatest influence, and outbreaks of player-power have concentrated minds from England to Samoa via Canada and Argentina. Full steam ahead, then? Not on your nelly.
A quick straw poll among representatives of England's Premiership community reveals deep frustration at the failure of the Six Nations committee to go the whole hog by sectioning off Europe's major international tournament and freeing up the rest of the season for domestic and cross-border club activity. The decision to play the Six Nations over seven weeks rather than 10 - too radical by half for the Welsh Rugby Union, nowhere near radical enough for those parties who wanted an uninterrupted programme of matches played over a maximum of six weeks - has opened up a new political rift that may rumble on for years and threaten the stability of the game in the northern hemisphere.
Within hours of the Six Nations declaration, in which the "halfway house" format was put in place until after the 2007 World Cup, the Euro Pro-Rugby Club Association issued a request for an urgent meeting with the decision- makers. This was significant. EPRCA may sound like the latest ingredient in rugby's indigestible alphabet soup - since 1995, the English game alone has been lumbered with EPRUC, ERP, EFDR, ESDR and PRA, to name but a few - but this new body represents the professional sides of France, Italy, Wales and Spain, as well as those operating in red rose country. (The Irish provinces and Scottish super-clubs are keen to throw their weight behind the venture, and will do so once some regulatory minutiae has been put to bed).
Perhaps the key point about EPRCA is its delegates' determination to present a united front on the serious issues affecting them - quite a departure for the English, French and Welsh, in any sphere. The first serious issue, and quite possibly the most serious the association will ever have to deal with, is the structured season. EPRCA believes professional club rugby has the potential to create what economists call a virtuous circle, in which players, supporters, owner-investors, national unions and Test teams can thrive. They also believe that without some rationalisation of the fixture list, their chances of success are somewhere close to zero.
As a result, they will not let this Six Nations declaration go unchallenged. "We see this compromise as a lost opportunity," said Howard Thomas, the acting chief executive of Premier Rugby (the English Premiership clubs' umbrella organisation) and one of the key figures behind the establishment of EPRCA. "We are not trying to raise the temperature or overthrow the decision for the sake of it - indeed, we respect the fact that a lot of different agendas were on the table: national agendas, sponsorship agendas, broadcasting agendas. But until we get all interested bodies together and talk this thing through, the issue will remain unresolved."
Many major club owners and financiers, in France as well as on the British mainland, claim the consultation process trumpeted by the Six Nations committee passed them by. …