HC Deb 01 February 1999 vol 324 cc583-4
6. Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

What representations he has received concerning the state of rugby union; and if he will make a statement on his responsibilities as they affect the sport. [66763]

The Minister for Sport (Mr. Tony Banks)

I convey the House's congratulations to Ulster, who beat Colomiers in Dublin on Saturday to become the first Irish side to win the European cup. That united Ireland in a way that politicians can only dream about and was an object lesson to politicians about the enormous power of sport.

I share the concern of the House and the wider public about the recent problems that have bedevilled the five nations championship, although I have received few representations about it myself. I am in regular close contact with bodies such as the Rugby Football Union to convey Government concerns and offer help where I can but, as my hon. Friend knows, sport is not directly controlled by the Government. I met the RFU on 26 January to discuss a possible bid for the 2007 world cup. We also discussed this year's world cup, the five nations championship and the opportunities to bring major sporting events to this country.

Mr. MacShane

I thank the Minister for that full reply which shows that as well as impaling sports administrators, he is scrumming down and getting on with the job. Is he aware that the International Rugby Board is already charging £40 for ticket entries to the world rugby cup? That will lead to half-empty stadiums. It proposes to charge £100 for the final. Will he consider that and the proposal to reorganise the rugby union leagues? There are calls for a super-elite league based on teams close to the M25. That would mean a southern comfort closed shop of rugby union excluding many northern teams such as the great teams of Yorkshire, especially Rotherham, who are in the frame for promotion. Any league system for rugby should involve three up, three down to preserve movement and ambition. Rugby is actively supported in all our communities.

Mr. Banks

I have heard concerns about likely ticket pricing in the world cup. It is going to be an exciting world cup, but people will not be quite as interested in some matches as in others. We do not want a repeat of the problems in France during the soccer world cup. I will take these matters up. I have had some discussions with the RFU and I will take it up with the IRB because it would be shame to spoil a fantastic world cup.

As to the other matter, I am in favour of two conferences of the British league, but I understand that discussions are continuing. The latest idea seems to involve an Anglo-Welsh league, with the first division comprising mainly the 10 top English clubs and Cardiff and Swansea. That is a matter for the governing bodies and authorities of rugby to determine, but I know that they will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has said and to the views of the all-party rugby group. Rugby has gone through a rough patch recently, and it would be a pity to lose this good opportunity to restructure the sport in this country.