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Rotherham in the clear over payment allegations - Telegraph

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    Rotherham in the clear over payment allegations

    By Mick Cleary

    12:01AM BST 03 Jun 2003

    The Arlidge Inquiry into alleged illegal payments made to Rotherham RUFC has failed to produce any conclusive evidence against the South Yorkshire club.

    Five months after being brought in by the Rugby Football Union to investigate allegations that Rotherham had taken a £720,000 inducement from the Premiership clubs not to take up their promotion slot last season, a draft report compiled by Anthony Arlidge QC, obtained exclusively by The Daily Telegraph, concludes: "It is impossible, without reviewing every single transaction of every single person/entity connected to Rotherham RUFC, to state categorically that no such payment was made but I consider it unlikely."

    Later in his report, Arlidge hardens his stance. "I conclude that there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any payment was in fact made and some positive evidence suggesting that no money was paid."

    Rotherham have been the focus of Arlidge's considerable scrutiny. They were the only entity involved in this whole, drawn-out matter, to give him full cooperation. Rotherham's owner, Mike Yarlett, opened the books not just of the club, but of his family and his company, Yorkshire Windows, as far back as three years. Rotherham appear confident of their position and their conscience.

    "The forensic accounting exercise has failed to unearth any evidence to indicate that anything improper went into the accounts of Mr Yarlett's companies or family," Arlidge says. "The cynical would say that they wouldn't find it, would they [sic]?"

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    That last sentence would seem unfairly loaded. Arlidge was the man charged with cutting through such innuendo on turning hearsay into fact, tittle-tattle into evidence. A reading of the 42-page report, based on interviews with 18 key individuals, shows just how difficult he has found that task.

    The controversy was triggered by allegations made by Worcester's owner, Cecil Duckworth, in December 2002 that the 12 Premiership clubs had conspired to ring-fence the elite division the previous year by paying off Rotherham to the tune of £60,000 each.

    Duckworth alleged that the same deal had been discussed again for this season. As things turned out, Rotherham's promotion was blocked by the RFU last season on the grounds that they did not meet the entry criteria. Premier Rugby stalled again on Rotherham's promotion this season, raising objections which were eventually overturned.

    The basis of Duckworth's allegations stemmed primarily from a series of telephone conversations held with Northampton's owner, Keith Barwell, in December 2002. Arlidge was unable to achieve clarification on several points, largely because Barwell declined to be interviewed, much to the annoyance of the QC.

    "Mr Barwell was not prepared to put his mouth where his convictions lay," Arlidge writes.

    However, Arlidge does record that, in the course of those conversations, Barwell said more than once that his own warnings "had nipped the project in the bud and that no money had been paid to anyone".

    Barwell wrote to Arlidge to point out that he was bound by a policy decision of Premier Rugby not to cooperate. Arlidge notes that "cooperation from Premier Rugby has been most disappointing and that has made my task more difficult".

    Arlidge attempts to nail down just who paid what to whom and why.

    Rotherham, as a result of being rejected last season by the Premiership, were entitled to a parachute payment of £720,000. They were also entitled to similar monies due to their relegation from the Premiership in 2001.

    Given that the two sums of money - the alleged inducement and the parachute payment - are almost identical, it is little surprise in such a shadowy affair that there should be overlap in conversations relating to what was paid and when. Arlidge concludes at one point: "The RFU has not exercised as much control over payments as might otherwise have been the case."

    Arlidge also criticises Rotherham for their paperwork, with particular regard to their failure to meet the entry criteria. "They demonstrate both an initial casualness of approach and a willingness to manipulate facts to fit a required situation."

    Two critical communications and meetings are highlighted. The first is a phone conversation between Barwell and Peter Coupland, a director of Rotherham RUFC, that took place some time around April 2002. Coupland supposedly asks Barwell to explain why there has been a delay in payment of some £30,000. Barwell, who had just recovered from a serious illness, is unsure as to what he is talking about.

    Rotherham explain in testimony later that the call regarded a possible transfer fee for wing Oriol Ripol, who moved from Rotherham to Northampton, and that no precise figure was ever raised. Barwell sees it differently. So, too, Arlidge.

    "I do not find it credible that this conversation was about a transfer payment," Arlidge says. "Mr Barwell's [subsequent] action in telling others to have nothing to do with it is not consistent with a call simply about a transfer payment."

    For the sake of argument, suppose that there were a conspiracy. Why would Rotherham contact someone they must have known to be hostile and demand payment? Surely they would have gone to a central source?

    The second critical event occurred at a meeting of Premiership owners on Sept 2, 2002, when the matter of financial support to Rotherham was brought up.

    "It is . . . clear that this was not about a contribution to parachute payments," Arlidge concludes.

    The bottom line in this confusing matter is that no hard evidence has been unearthed. Arlidge concludes at one point that Yarlett "was at best ambivalent towards promotion", a harsh judgment on a man who has been at the club, boy and man, as player, coach, and benefactor.

    Arlidge exonerates Barwell and Paul Caddick, of Leeds, from any involvement whatsoever and suggests, too, that Newcastle's Dave Thompson was not involved either.

    "It is difficult to determine how firm any agreement was," Arlidge writes. "There was certainly incitement in the sense of encouragement by some individuals for such payment to be made. As to those involved, there is direct evidence that Mr Jillings [Harlequins] was involved and some that Mr Yarlett was involved." The level of Yarlett's involvement appears largely circumstantial.

    Rotherham RUFC refused to comment last night, reserving their reaction until the final report, complete with any amendments, is presented to the RFU. That is believed to have been passed to the union over the weekend. They must now decide what action, if any, to take.

    It has been a troubling, costly business. How much have these investigations cost the RFU - £100,000? £150,000? The RFU are certain to face a grilling on the wisdom of such expenditure at next month's annual meeting.

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