EDINBURGH and Glasgow players have welcomed a move towards qualification for future European Cup tournaments as negotiations to avert a continental split enter the final stages.
Greig Laidlaw and Alastair Kellock, the respective team captains preparing for the 2013-14 Heineken Cup, dismissed suggestions that Scottish clubs were resisting the push by English and French rivals to force Scottish sides to qualify for Europe. In fact, they endorsed the idea that the top six teams in the RaboDirect Pro12 would enter the 2014-15 Heineken and the bottom six go into the Amlin, which is a clear concession from the Scottish camp that appears designed to keep English and French clubs involved.
Kellock said: “Having a meritocracy and being forced to qualify based on league position should not scare anybody.
“There has got to be change, and there is going to be change in the make-up of the Heineken Cup. Let us make these changes and let this tournament continue. Negotiations are still going on and no decisions have been made, at least not at Scottish level, but I really want a solution to be found. Playing in big European games in different environments is fantastic and it would be very sad if the competition did not continue. You have young kids watching the Heineken Cup both live and on television who are inspired to take up the game, and that happens not just in Scotland but in every country.”
Laidlaw added: “The Heineken Cup is massive for players, supporters and everyone associated with rugby in Europe, and everyone knows that so I think we will get agreement and if that means we have to qualify we’re quite happy with that.
“I have faith in the players and the coaching team we have here.
“Edinburgh would need to get as high up the league as we possibly can to ensure that we qualify, and that’s something we have to do this season, despite the tough start, in case it does move to a new format for next season. But that’s our aim anyway.”
There is much detail involved in the debate which, in fairness, threatens to bore people to death, but the issue essentially boils down to two matters for Scottish rugby. First, a desire to ensure both Edinburgh and Glasgow remain at the top table of European rugby and that the SRU, still working their way back from a debt haemorrhage, continue to receive the near-£5 million tournament revenues upon which professional rugby here relies.
Mark Dodson, the SRU chief executive and ERC director, stated consistently at yesterday’s launch of the 2013-14 competitions in Glasgow that the Celtic and Italian unions have no preconditions to a fresh round of talks with the English and French clubs scheduled for 23 and 24 October, with mediator Graeme Mew. He was also clear in stating that moving to qualification was not a problem for Scotland as, with investment in Glasgow and Edinburgh increased from around £3m to £4.2m last year, they were now expected to be among the top six Pro12 clubs each year.
There is an acceptance of the need for a new qualification process and change to the financial share between English, French and Pro12 clubs, as well as an apparent assurance that, whatever competition format emerges from the battle for control, more money will be paid out to all unions involved, even if Scotland did find themselves with one team in the Heineken Cup and one in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Dodson said: “There have been so many preconditions laid down by people going through the last 15 months or 15 meetings that, when we do sit down next time, there will be no preconditions and we are going to negotiate seriously to make sure this is resolved. All things are in and nothing is precluded. I’m not frightened of making sure that we can qualify into a merit-based tournament and the truth is that, if we’re going to compete in Europe and be serious about the Heineken Cup, we have to have teams that can and will play at that standard.
“We are reconstructing one club [Edinburgh] and we’re investing in a club to win the championship this year, so we understand that we have to be strong there so it’s not catastrophic if we don’t have automatic qualification. But we need to get a solution to this as much as anyone else does.
“This is not good for European rugby. We have a tremendous tournament, which is growing consistently. We need to make it better and if we have to make concessions to do that then that’s what we’ll do.”
Dodson added: “This is not just serious for Scottish rugby, this is serious for everybody, and that is really now becoming clear for people.
“The deadline of May next year is absolutely the drop-dead date, when it has to come to fruition, but it’s not our intention to wait till then.
“The idea that we’ve been kicking things into the long grass is wrong. That’s never been the case because we’ve always been prepared to negotiate, and we’re working to get some clarity around this as soon as possible.
“I’ll fly anywhere, drive anywhere, weekends, morning, noon or night, we’ll be there to make it happen because it’s serious for everybody.”