LEICESTER director of rugby Richard Cockerill has warned the Rugby Football Union that player loyalty will reside with the clubs rather than England should their allegiance become the next battleground in the dispute over Europe.
The doomsday scenario of players being blocked from representing England was floated at yesterday’s launch of the 19th – and almost certainly last – Heineken Cup at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
European Rugby Cup optimistically implored the Anglo-French alliance to resume talks next month, but given their determination to establish the Rugby Champions Cup next season, the conflict now appears destined for the courts.
Approval for the breakaway, which the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 clubs have invited all Celtic and Italian teams to join, is required from the RFU and International Rugby Board.
Potentially either the clubs or RFU could deny players involvement in Test rugby, but Cockerill insists England would suffer most from such an outcome.
“Players are contracted to their clubs, winning the Prem-iership is our bread and butter, that’s what we do,” Cockerill said.
“The hypothetical question is that if the union doesn’t support that and excludes every Premiership player from playing for England, then it will do very well to sell out Twickenham using players from the Championship.
“That’s why this has to work. It [RFU] could go to the 2015 World Cup without any players. That’ll work well.”
Cockerill wants a pan-Europ-ean competition featuring all
nations, but views the demand that teams in the RaboDirect Pro12 must qualify as non-
negotiable. Under the current system only the weakest Irish and Welsh sides are excluded.
“It’s very important that all countries are represented, but that has to be on the right terms,” he said.
“Premiership teams are battling hard every week to qualify for Europe and that affects you for the next 12 months.
“Why is it all right for Leicester, Bath or Wasps to miss out on Europe, but it’s not all right for Munster or Leinster to miss out?
“If you want to be in the best tournament, you should qualify for it. If you’re in the top six of the Rabo you’re in it, if you’re not you’re not. Makes sense to me.”
Leicester captain Toby Flood stated that the chances of players going on strike – “that’s the only power we have in this” – is zero, but agreed with Cockerill that parity is essential.
There was a sense that ERC had missed an opportunity to seize the initiative as chief executive Derek McGrath addressed the media.
He blandly declared “the door is still open to find solutions, but all parties have a responsibility to find those solutions”, despite Anglo-French insistence that when the current accord expires at the end of the season their involvement with ERC is over.
Slightly riled by the suggestions ERC are “delusional” in their hope that negotiations would resume, McGrath responded by stating that the BT Sport-backed clubs are only refusing to work with ERC so that the rival Sky Sports deal would be terminated.
“What’s clear to us is that this is not about ERC’s performance or the competitions, it’s about winding down the company in the expectation that the contract will fall away,” McGrath said.
“That’s not something the board of ERC is willing to accept.”