Unions get tough as they reiterate backing for Heineken Cup

The latest twists in the already serpentine bid to reach agreement over the future of European club rugby’s flagship competitions came last night with what was, ultimately, a hardening of resolve on both sides of the barricades.

Five of the Six Nations unions met in Dublin to discuss the torturous and tangled web of issues — the RFU, interestingly, was not invited — and announced their intention to hold firm on the crucial matter of governance by declaring their support for the ERC which organises the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups.

Premiership Rugby (PLR) who, along with their French club counterparts (LNR), refuse to continue under the ERC’s umbrella beyond the current accord which ends in May, subsequently insisted that it remains all systems go for their planned Rugby Champions Cup.

As you were, then.

Still, the unions’ stance is significant if only because it confirms once and for all the line over which they will not pass after earlier concessions made to the English and French clubs to alter tournament formats, qualification rules and revenue splits which were seen as a victory for the latter group.

The ERC will therefore continue to control the “centralised sale and management of all commercial rights, among other things” which was the closest an IRFU statement on the matter came to mentioning the crux over broadcasting rights which hangs forebodingly over everything, but which no-one has yet dared to tackle.

There was mention, however, of talks to examine the “internal functioning” of the ERC, which can be interpreted as a (spurned) olive branch, while the statement revealed there will be just the one European competition played next year, regardless of how many countries sign up.

The key figures in all this now are the French, whose clubs have stood alongside their English counterparts until now but who have been given the squeeze by Pierre Camou, the French Federation president (FFR).

Camou has offered a carrot and stick approach by making stark warnings about TV rights, player release and other crucial issues on the one hand while offering the Top 14 clubs €2m apiece to stick with the status quo in Europe on the other.

So far, only Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal has declared solidarity with the ERC side and that was over five weeks ago and out of anger at LNR plans to impose greater restrictions on foreign player numbers.

Should more French clubs follow him, then any plans to embark on the proposed Rugby Champions Cup would be left hanging by a thread, but there are other questions besides to be answered.

What now of the RFU, who were left out in the cold yesterday? And which way will the Welsh regions lean now, after their declaration of support for the breakaway competition last month and their union’s differing stance?

Premiership Rugby in their statement last night made the point that the IRFU’s release had made no mention of what clubs would take part in their proposed tournament. The battle lines remain blurred. Whatever happens, it is difficult to disagree with Bernard Jackman who described the entire process as “a massive game of bluff” on RTÉ radio. As things stand, we may be left with two rival — and diluted — European competitions next season.


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