Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Heineken Cup really could go up in smoke

Toulon players celebrate last season's Heineken Cup triumph
Toulon players celebrate last season's Heineken Cup triumph

The Irish and the Scots will echo a resounding amen to the words of wisdom spoken by Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis, who has called on England’s Aviva Premiership and France’s Top 14 clubs to get their acts together in ensuring the future of the Heineken Cup.

From the Scottish Highlands to the valleys of south Wales and in the fields the length and breadth of Ireland, Celtic cousins are as one in affirming Lewis’s view — and hoping that it serves to spark a much-needed and long-awaited response in the positive from England and France.

It is self-evident that his straight-talking message — “step up and come to the negotiating table” is the paraphrased version — will have struck a chord not only among the Celtic nations but in Italy, too. In other words, with those who have most to lose.

Now we can only hope that those words finally get through to the English and French as well.

With the Heineken Cup — in its current hugely successful format — reaching its terminus at the end of this season, the clock is ticking.

But it is not ticking in anyone’s favour, for if the biggest, most popular and best-supported tournament in northern hemisphere club rugby is allowed to wither and die as a result of intransigence, there will be no winners.

Such an outcome would deal rugby in all six countries a massive blow.

Lewis, to his credit, has spelt that out in clear, unambiguous terms, warning that the muscle now being flexed by the English and French clubs is a serious threat to the future of the Heineken Cup.

In other words, what is at risk of extinction is European rugby’s flagship competition.

Have we all got that — the EXTINCTION of European rugby’s flagship competition?

While one is tempted to say that does not bear thinking about, the polar opposite is true — it really has to be thought about since unless the matter can be sorted out very soon to everyone’s satisfaction, European rugby is going to be dealt a shattering blow eight months from now.

For unless the representatives of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, England and France can agree on a deal to save it, this season’s tournament will be the last.

Have we all got that, too? THE LAST, for after the May 24, 2014 final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, that will be it. Adieu Heineken Cup, adieu the competition which, in the past decade, has done more than any other to raise rugby’s profile and arouse public interest, drawing in tens of thousands of spectators/viewers and their pounds/euro.

The powerful English clubs — more as a result of the money behind them than of on-field tournament dominance, note — have served notice they will quit the Heineken Cup when the Paris Accord, the current agreement, runs out.

In these worrying circumstances, the importance of reaching a resolution could be heard in harmony with the desperation of Lewis’s voice when he said: “There has to be a European Cup next season. It’s too good to lose.

 “We have got to make sure it happens and we have got to say to the English clubs that you have got to step up and come to the table, and negotiate properly to come up with a solution because this issue, this problem, has been created by the England (clubs) and England has got to come and sort it.”

Like the English, the French are insistent that they will not participate beyond May 2014 unless their demands for change are met.

While money is a factor — the English and French want more — the bigger bone of contention is the pair’s stance on the number of teams being reduced from 24 to 20, with only the leading six in the Aviva Premiership, Top 14 and PRO12 being guaranteed inclusion. If adapted, that would see the PRO12 hit hard. Very, very hard. The losers would be in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy, hence those nations’ rejection of the Big Two’s proposals.

Currently both Ireland and Wales are guaranteed the inclusion of three teams in the Heineken Cup, while Italy and Scotland each have two representatives. Depending on circumstances in any given season, the Irish and Welsh could have up to four.

 However, under the England/France plan, some of those countries stand to end up with no representation so one does not have to be of Mensa standard intelligence to see that acceptance of any such move would be hugely damaging to the game there.

This may be bluff — brinkmanship designed to wring concessions from frightened partners. But the English boycotted the tournament in the past and it went ahead without them.

It was wounded but not slain in 1998-99. But this is different, for in the interim the Heineken Cup has flourished beyond recognition, emerging as an all-time winner as a competition. The effect now would be seismic.

As things stand, unless the various parties hammer out an agreement, there will be no European club competition after May 2014.

Tick-tock, tick-tock. That’s not a clock, incidentally — it’s a time-bomb. So are you listening out there?

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