WITH all the focus on the autumn Tests, it is little wonder that last Tuesday’s meeting between the French and English clubs and their respective unions slipped under the radar.
When the dust finally settles, it may yet prove the turning point in the long-running battle for control of the soul of European rugby.
If that turns out to be true, we will have a grumpy Frenchman by the name of Pierre Camou to thank. The president of the French Rugby Federation (FFR) once again manned the barricades on behalf of ERC, the body which runs the Heineken Cup and is danger of losing control of the tournament as English and French clubs circle.
Camou, right, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that he appears to be the leader of an army of one, is said to have made himself crystal clear on the subject of the rebel clubs’ plans to set up a breakaway Rugby Champions Cup competition next season. For the first time, Camou faced down the dissident clubs’ bodies – Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) and Premier Rugby Ltd (PRL) – and told them that he would not let the French clubs take part.
He then pulled an ace from his sleeve – four of them had already sided with him and ERC. We know one is Heineken Cup holders Toulon. Mourad Boudjellal, the comic book magnate who owns Toulon, is furious with LNR plans to restrict the number of foreigners his club fields. Biarritz are rumoured to be one of the other clubs supporting Camou. That may have something to do with the fact that the Biarritz president Serge Blanco, a long-time and vociferous champion of the clubs, is keen to take Camou’s place as FFR president once his term is up, so he suddenly has a lot less to say for himself.
PRL’s boss Mark McCafferty and the English clubs’ principal mover and shaker, Bath owner Bruce Craig, were not best pleased. There is a certain irony at work because, after everyone else has spent the last two years second guessing PRL’s strategy, they now have a tricky task trying to work out whether Camou is bluffing or whether the cantankerous, old-school Frenchman is serious about derailing their plans. Those who know him best suggest the latter and, since the clubs already have almost everything they want regarding finance and qualification, perhaps they will reason that the fight over governance can wait for another day. That would just leave the TV deal to sort out and, if Sky and BT were locked in a room, they would probably split things amicably.
A question remains over why Camou is so insistent on defending the ERC when pretty much everyone else on either side of the fence has given up on them and Irish boss Derek McGrath.
The clue may lie in the controversial postponement in March 2012 of the France v Ireland match ten minutes before kick-off due to a frozen pitch. Camou took much of the blame for that farce and a good few of the barbs that came his way were fired from the Dublin offices of the Six Nations.
Should the ERC fold, the new competition would move lock, stock and barrel under the wing of… the very same Six Nations organisation.