HARLEQUINS director of rugby Conor O’Shea and Ireland legend Donal Lenihan have criticised Scottish rugby as having messed up the professional game in this country, with O’Shea insisting that a new Heineken Cup missing Scottish teams would actually benefit the game north of the border.
The former Ireland cap, who is pushing the English and French clubs’ desire for a new “Rugby Champions Cup”, was responding to claims by former Leinster and Ireland winger Shane Horgan, on Irish RTE television, that a new tournament, featuring only the top six teams from the RaboDirect PRO12, could spell the end of professional rugby in Scotland.
Defending the right of Scottish and Italian teams to be involved, if ignoring the presence of Glasgow Warriors in last season’s play-offs and currently atop the PRO12, Horgan said: “If you went top six [qualifiers from the RaboDirect PRO12] and there are no Scottish teams in the Heineken Cup, no players will want to play for those Scottish teams, no foreign players, no Scottish players, so they will leak players, the crowds will diminish and there won’t be money in the game to have professional rugby in those countries.”
O’Shea responded: “Do you know what it will do? You will have a Scottish Rugby Union that will have to invest in bringing through their own players, play their own players and develop their own players, and retain them, and actually see them come through as a force rather than bringing in loads of players which they’re doing at the moment.
“Look. They let the Borders go. Don’t look [at Scotland] and sympathise all the time and say they didn’t have the opportunity. They actually had the opportunity. It’s like going to Ireland and saying ‘we won’t have Munster as a province’. They went to the Borders and said ‘no Borders’. How can you do that?”
Lenihan also defended the unions’ side, insisting that the Heineken Cup should remain “with some tweaks”, but agreed with O’Shea on the ills of Scottish rugby.
“That’s a fair point,” he said. “Scottish rugby got it wrong from day one. One of the reasons was that they went away and developed Murrayfield. They put millions into the development of Murrayfield. Rugby then went professional and they didn’t have enough money to support the development of the provinces, and not having the Borders is like having professional rugby in Ireland without Munster involved in it. Just ridiculous.”
However, he went on: “But that’s in the past. There’s an easy solution in my view. You can’t expand the fixture list anymore so even if we keep 20 teams we’ll still have six pool games.
“So keep the 24 teams and let the French have seven, the English their seven and seven from the RaboDirect PRO12, and the Rabo can ring-fence one place for a Scottish team and one for Italian.”
The French chairman of ERC, Jean-Pierre Lux, yesterday castigated the plans by France’s leading clubs and the Aviva Premiership and insisted that the Federation of Rugby (FFR) would not permit the French clubs to play in another tournament.
Canadian lawyer Graeme Mew has been brought by European Rugby Cup to act as an independent mediator in the dispute but Premiership Rugby and the French Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) insist that they will not attend the next round of negotiations scheduled for 23 October.
Speaking at yesterday’s Paris launch of this season’s Heineken Cup, Lux stated: “The FFR has now officially reminded the LNR that no international game involving French clubs can take place without the advance permission of the FFR. And the RFU has a similar position regarding Premiership Rugby.
“The recent media releases from the LNR and Premiership Rugby lacked respect. In June, the LNR committed to the principle of central marketing for ERC’s tournaments which has been at the heart of European club rugby’s commercial success.
“While this process began in 2012, ERC met with the parties during the summer, with the exception of Premiership Rugby, who refused to engage. They have never entered into negotiations. This impasse is essentially because Premiership Rugby want to renege on a binding commercial deal in favour of their questionable TV contract with BT.
“We have another opportunity for everyone to finally engage with the process with the meeting on 23 and 24 October with the IRB-recommended mediator, Graeme Mew. I hope we will be able to reach an agreement.
“It would be disastrous to deprive so many players and fans of the opportunity of participating in such an outstanding tournament.”
The SRU have stated in these columns that they could cope with a new system of qualification, but fear the loss of half of the existing £5m received in ERC revenues.
O’Shea agreed that Lenihan’s suggestion had merit and, pushed on whether there will be an all-encompassing competition next season, added: “There will be a tournament, no doubt about that. It will require some very big people to go into a room and put their egos to one side, on both sides, and solve this rather than going in looking for a battle, and Donal you should do it because you would have a solution pretty quickly.”