England’s clubs have edged back from the brink of exclusion from European competition next season following a dramatic day in a dispute destined to continue for another year.
Premiership Rugby has indicated it may be willing to participate in a tournament run by European Rugby Cup (ERC) for 2014-15 if an acceptable alternative is put in place for 2015-16.
The climbdown comes after the presidents of the French clubs, represented by Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), agreed at a meeting at Orly Airport near Paris yesterday to commit to the ERC-run format announced by the unions last week.
Beyond 2014-15, however, LNR is seeking the introduction of an alternative competition overseen by a new body that will maximise the commercial interests of its clubs.
Abandoning the breakaway Rugby Champions Cup and accepting the unions’ offer for next season will be viewed as a betrayal by Premiership Rugby and LNR’s insistence that English clubs are involved will offer little comfort.
PRL has stated repeatedly that it will not work under the authority of ERC, but last night chief executive Mark McCafferty indicated it was willing to listen to the French proposal.
“If somebody can outline what that transition would entail, how the issues would be overcome and exactly what the new structure in 2015-16 would be, then we could look at it,” McCafferty said.
“If we can see there is a new structure to replace ERC and we have the detail of that, then something might be feasible. At the moment it’s all very general and difficult to comment on.”
LNR president Paul Goze assured Premiership Rugby that “French clubs can get involved in competitions run by the ERC in 2014-15 on condition that it will be staged with clubs from England”.
How much faith can be placed in their loyalty is open to debate, however, as the Top 14 teams, under pressure from their union, have already broken ranks in a volte-face that ensures the Rugby Champions Cup is defunct without a detail having been published.
And the clear absence of communication between Premiership Rugby and LNR — the former knew nothing of the latter’s intentions — hardly points to a strong relationship between the breakaway partners.
Further muddying the waters is Premiership Rugby’s TV rights deal with BT Sport and although the terms of this concerning European competition are unknown, it is thought to preclude any involvement with ERC.
What format next season’s European competition will take is unknown, but with LNR seeking more time to make plans, the saga could well rumble on well into 2015.
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