Rugby the loser in Heineken Cup misadventures

HISTORY is always written by the winners but when the scribes get around to detailing the shenanigans surrounding the current Heineken Cup misadventures it is perfectly possible that there won’t be any.

Captains gather for the launch of the 2012 Heineken Cup at Twickenham. Picture: Anthony Devlin/PA

It was a good week for the authorities after Pierre Camou, president of the Federation of French Rugby (FFR) aimed both barrels at the rebel English and French clubs and let loose.

“No international competition involving French clubs can be organised outside the framework of the FFR without its prior agreement. The FFR has always been and will remain a major player in the European cups organised by ERC [European Rugby Cup] and backs proposals to permit the continuity and development of these… The statement released by the clubs therefore appears irrelevant and inappropriate.”

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One of the last two hurdles standing in the way of the proposed new “Rugby Champions Cup” had stood up and been counted. All it required was for the other half of the equation, England’s Rugby Football Union, to say something similar because faced with a solid brick wall, the English and French clubs may just have pondered the wisdom of banging their heads against it.

The rugby world waited... the rugby world could have washed its smalls instead. The bugles had sounded but instead of going over the top the RFU kept their heads below the parapet. Jean-Pierre Lux, chairman of the ERC, decided to speak on their behalf, effectively outing Twickenham chief executive Ian Ritchie as a non-believer. The Frenchman stated in public that both Richie and RFU president Bill Beaumont has told him in private that the RFU would not back an Anglo/French cup.

Ritchie has good reasons for keeping his own council, the RFU needs the clubs to help England host a successful World Cup in two years’ time, but given what is at stake for the game in Europe his public silence was less than helpful.

At least Ritchie knows what’s what even if he hasn’t the wherewithal to say so out loud. Quite what the International Rugby Board’s preening Australian chief executive Brett Gosper knows is anyone’s guess.

The nub of this argument is about who runs the game in Europe and the implications are far reaching and frankly scary to anyone with an ounce of imagination, which rules out Gosper. On Wednesday the IRB boss told Radio Five Live that if the RFU and FFR sanctioned the “Rugby Champions Cup” the IRB would find it hard to do anything else.

Gosper was right but when the European unions are facing the biggest threat to the game in the professional era the last thing they needed from him was the truth. They needed a firm, categorical and watertight rebuttal of the rebel cause and all who sail in her. Someone obviously kicked his shins under he table because later that same day Gosper was singing a different tune. “We don’t believe in an Anglo-French competition. We strongly believe it should be a European competition.”

He could be forgiven for sounding like a ventriloquist’s dummy as he spoke since the words were obviously written on an idiot board just to ensure there was no repeat of the Five Live fiasco. But still, it says something when the IRB’s own chief executive needs his hand held as he tiptoes through this minefield.

On Thursday the Celts and Italians issued similar press releases all of which insisted that they would only participate in a European cup sanctioned by the IRB. The bulletins had one other thing in common – not one mentioned European Rugby Cup. As one insider noted, things had gotten “public and personal” and when that happens everyone and their egos are much less inclined to forgive or forget. The unions are willing to sacrifice the ERC in an effort to bring the English and French clubs back to the table.

A brand new body could be instituted with a change of personnel and a revised voting system which would better reflect the financial reality on the ground, giving the English and French clubs a bigger say in the running of the new competition whilst ensuring the unions have the last word.

Throw in a 20-team tournament with the top six of each league there on merit, with the added stipulation that there must be at least one team from every European nation in the top tournament, which will at least have the benefit of annuling the perennial exciuse of English clubs for their recent failutre in Europe. Add the winners of the previous season’s Heineken and Amlin tournaments and you have the makings of a new 20-strong cup.

All that is left is a division of the spoils but the unions would surely give ground on that thorny subject provided they got their key demand – control of the new competition. All this presumes that the English and French clubs will come back to the negotiating table when they may instead opt for the law courts.