ANGLO-FRENCH hopes of establishing their own European competition suffered a significant setback when the IRB declared it would be opposed to a format consisting only of teams from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14.
English and French clubs are seeking structural, qualification and financial changes to the Heineken Cup and have refused to work under tournament organisers European Rugby Cup once this season is over.
Armed with a highly lucrative TV rights deal through BT Sport, they have declared they will create a cross-border format that teams from other nations were welcome to join.
Should Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian sides decline, they will play each other, amid suggestions South Africa’s provinces could be added at a later date.
Ultimate approval would be required from the IRB’s council, however, and chief executive of the global game’s governing body Brett Gosper has indicated that would not be forthcoming.
“We don’t think it’s in the interests of the game a competition such as that, no,” Gosper said. “We don’t believe in an Anglo-French competition in itself. We strongly believe it should be a European competition and that’s what we would be supporting and throwing our weight behind.
“A full European competition is the right thing for the game of rugby in terms of development, growth and so on. That’s how we see it.”
Initial approval for an Anglo-French competition would also have to come from the Rugby Football Union and French Rugby Federation, which is far from certain with the unions forced to tread a careful line between their relationship with their Celtic counterparts and loyalty to their clubs. Even if that approval was forthcoming, Gosper’s view indicates that the IRB council would intervene, blocking their way of creating a breakaway within the governance of the game.
Emboldened by their £152 million four-year deal with BT Sport and determined to be masters of their own destiny, the Premiership clubs are flexing their muscles in a way that is challenging the balance of power with the union. To date, the IRB have kept their distance from the discussions and Gosper is “confident” the warring factions will agree a resolution without their involvement.
Gosper was speaking at an IRB’s media briefing in London to mark the two years to go milestone until England hosts the World Cup in 2015.
But, for the second day in succession, the World Cup agenda was hijacked by the scenario threatening the Heineken Cup.
However, the Australian views recent events as evidence that the sport is in rude health.
“The international game is growing, the club game is growing,” Gosper said.
“No one likes these sorts of disputes to play out publicly but, then again, they’re the symptom of a very healthy growing sport and a sport that everyone’s interested in.”