Opposition to bid to revamp Heineken Cup remains firm among Celtic and Italian clubs
THE Celtic and Italian unions are standing firm in the battle with their English and French counterparts, and will today repeat the message to Premier Rugby Ltd (PRL) that they have no plans to drop the existing right of their clubs to automatic qualification to the Heineken Cup.
The PRL have insisted that they and the French Top 14 clubs’ representatives, the LNR, will force the Heineken Cup to change to a new format with six or eight clubs from each of the Premiership, Top 14 and RaboDirect PRO12, with the PRO12 sides simply being those who finish in the top spots at the end of the season. That could lead to Scotland and Italy having only one team or, potentially, none in the Heineken Cup, a scenario that SRU chief executive Mark Dodson stated would not be contemplated.
If agreement is not reached, the PRL and LNR initially stated that they would withdraw from the Heineken Cup in 2014 and play in their own tournament, but the LNR have softened their stance on that, according to Dodson. The SRU CEO will represent the SRU at today’s latest meeting with stakeholders in Dublin, along with former president Ian McLauchlan, but it is not yet clear whether the PRL will turn up. The ERC Board also have a meeting in Dublin tomorrow at which they are expected to rubber-stamp their unity in opposition to the English and French plan.
Dodson said: “There is a lot of noise being made in the papers in England but I can assure you that the Celtic and Italian nations are working incredibly hard to make sure that the PRL and LNR do not just steamroller their proposals through. If anything, PRL are even more isolated than they were at the outset of these talks. The notion of gunboat diplomacy has back-fired and I think you will find this will be no walk in the park for the English clubs. There might be some change and it might be for the best. The French have asked us to look at when the final is played, for example, so that they can have a clear run at their championship’s end [they wish a move to April]. That was a reasonable request made in a reasonable way.
“But certain things that are to the complete detriment of rugby in Scotland will be resisted fundamentally. The PRL want to reduce the number of Celtic teams so they can drive through more English clubs, but you will find that the Irish, Welsh, Italians and ourselves completely reject that view.
“Nobody wants to see an Anglo-French tournament and that’s what they will be left with if they continue with this tactic.”
Asked whether he had any sympathy for the English clubs’ case, and the suggestion that the PRO12 and Scottish clubs could benefit from the extra pressure of having to qualify, he shook his head. “The English are always blaming something,” he said. “It’s the fact that there is no promotion/relegation in the Rabo, or the Irish and French clubs have more money than they have, then it’s another excuse and another excuse. But if they’d won four of the last seven European Cups you wouldn’t hear any of this. They have to come to terms with the route they have chosen for their leagues. Nobody is forcing them to have promotion and relegation. They choose to have it.
“The tournament was put together as a Europe-wide tournament and to get that you have to have all flavours. The competition is already weighted heavily in favour of the English and French clubs, as they have six clubs each and often have an extra with the winners of the Amlin Challenge Cup. If you weight it further you water down the attraction of the competition and you end up with a solution that doesn’t work for them.
“This is not just about getting change in Europe. It’s a battle about control and money. They are couching it in terms of bringing change and a meritocracy to the Heineken Cup, but it’s a clear power-play.
“Every conversation I’ve had with the Celtic nations and Italians has been one of complete solidarity, and that isn’t moving. The French have distinct sympathies with the Celts, but also have club owners in their own game seeking change and there are elections coming soon in the LNR so there’s a bit of posturing.”
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Monday 20 May 2013
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