Euro­pean rugby faces chaos as Eng­land dig in heels over pro­posed tour­ney

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - PADRAIC HALPIN

EURO­PEAN RUGBY could be on course for civil war af­ter the Scot­tish, Welsh, Ir­ish, French and Ital­ian unions this week an­nounced their com­mit­ment to ex­ist­ing Euro­pean club com­pe­ti­tions af­ter a meet­ing in Dublin.

The unions’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to push on with a com­pe­ti­tion un­der Euro­pean Club Rugby (ERC) con­trol risks iso­lat­ing English clubs who, along with their French coun­ter­parts, are plan­ning a break­away con­test to re­place the Heineken Cup from next sea­son.

The English Premier­ship re­sponded by say­ing those plans re­main on track, leav­ing the land­scape of Euro­pean rugby next sea­son – al­most two decades af­ter the in­tro­duc­tion of the Heineken Cup – still a long way from be­ing set­tled.

“All five unions be­lieve that it is crit­i­cal to the in­ter­ests of the game in Europe that the unions are at the heart of the gov­er­nance of cross- bor­der club com­pe­ti­tions,” the unions said in a joint state­ment.

“Cross-bor­der club com­pe­ti­tions must not con­flict with the de­vel­op­ment of the sport in Europe by Unions, this be­ing in the best in­ter­est of play­ers, spec­ta­tors and the sport in gen­eral.”

They added that 20 teams, a re­duc­tion from the cur­rent 24, would take part in next sea­son’s Euro­pean club com­pe­ti­tion “no mat­ter how many coun­tries are in­volved”.

Eng­land’s Rugby Foot­ball Union (RFU) said in a state­ment that it was “ex­tremely sur­prised and dis­ap­pointed not to be in­volved” in Thurs­day’s meet­ing hav­ing joined the other five unions last month to dis­cuss the fu­ture of Euro­pean club rugby.

How­ever, the RFU added: “It is right that the out­comes of the me­di­ated meet­ing held in Dublin on 24th Oc­to­ber, which re­sulted in an agree­ment for a mer­i­to­cratic tour­na­ment and eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion of rev­enues, have been reaf­firmed.

“It has been clear for some time that gov­er­nance is a cen­tral out­stand­ing is­sue and we re­main com­mit­ted to help fa­cil­i­tate a so­lu­tion so that a truly pan Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion can con­tinue to thrive for the ben­e­fit of play­ers and spec­ta­tors alike.”

Ire­land, whose sides have ex­celled in the Heineken Cup in re­cent years, have been hold­ing out along with the Scot­tish and Ital­ian Unions in the hope that ne­go­ti­a­tions can save the ex­ist­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

The pub­lic sup­port of the French Union is a ma­jor boost. French Fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Pierre Camou told the meet­ing he was con­fi­dent five Top 14 clubs would re­main in the com­pe­ti­tion and that he was look­ing for three more to join the 12 Celtic and Ital­ian teams, the Guardian news­pa­per said on its web­site.

The Welsh Union’s stance also puts it at odds with the four Welsh re­gional teams – Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scar­lets and New­port Gwent Dragons – who last month sur­pris­ingly backed the An­glo-French clubs plan.

The English and French leagues said last year they planned to with­draw from the ex­ist­ing for­mat at the end of this sea­son af­ter mak­ing no head­way in ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Celtic unions over qual­i­fi­ca­tion cri­te­ria and in­come dis­tri­bu­tion.

Dis­agree­ments about the tour­na­ment’s fu­ture TV rights – with new­com­ers BT com­ing into con­flict with long-stand­ing Heineken part­ner Sky – has also proved a ma­jor stum­bling block.

The head of the English Premier­ship told Reuters last week that the new club com­pe­ti­tion – the two-tier “Rugby Cham­pi­ons Cup” – is a “train that has left the sta­tion” and it was just a ques­tion of which teams wanted to join.

In their own state­ment on Thurs­day, English Premier­ship said: “There is no de­tail con­cern­ing the teams in­volved or the com­pe­ti­tion for­mat given the ab­sence of so many teams.

“We shall con­tinue to im­ple­ment the plans un­der way for the Rugby Cham­pi­ons Cup with the de­clared par­tic­i­pants in time for the 2014-15 sea­son, as re­quired by our clubs.” – Reuters

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