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Curtain to raise amidst uncertainty

The 19th and potentially final Heineken Cup will unfold against a backdrop of political upheaval that could have ramifications beyond the future of what many regard as the sport's greatest rugby competition.

Whatever happens on the pitch - and as ever with the Heineken Cup some mouthwatering match-ups await in the pool stages - will be overshadowed by the conflict between the clubs of England and France and European Rugby Cup Ltd, who run the tournament.

There are various battlegrounds in the dispute, but at its grandest level it is an attempt by the clubs to seize control of their own destiny by wrestling it away from the unions, who constitute ERC.

Emboldened by a lucrative broadcasting rights deal with BT Sport, the details of which have yet to be revealed publicly, the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 teams are challenging the unions' control of the game in a way never seen before.

Benefactors who have bankrolled their clubs at personal expense question why ERC should control their destiny when it has supported a system that favours the Celtic and Italian sides.

Claiming to have been stonewalled in their attempts to secure fairer qualification - the RaboDirect Pro12 sides are included in every Heineken Cup virtually en masse while the Premiership and Top 14 clubs must finish in the top six of their leagues - and a share of the revenue, the Anglo-French alliance will set up the 'Rugby Champions Cup' next season.

All the Celtic and Italian sides have been invited to join the new competition, which requires approval from the unions and International Rugby Board. If that is not forthcoming, legal intervention will be required to settled the dispute.

ERC are hopeful the input of independent mediator Graham Mew will bring the breakaway English and French clubs back to the negotiating table when the next round of summit talks are held on October 23-24.

Premiership Rugby and their French counterparts Ligue Nationale de Rugby have declared they will boycott the meeting and press ahead with the creation of the Rugby Champions Cup.

Another major thread to the argument is the stand-off between rival broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports.

ERC signed a new deal with long-term partners Sky Sports to commence when the existing accord expires at the end of the season, but BT Sport are hoping to muscle in through their backing of the Premiership.

It is a key element of a radically polarised dispute, although the recent softening in their position over Heineken Cup qualification from the Welsh and Scottish unions suggest compromises can be made.

At the heart of their willingness to find a solution is the knowledge that without the finance supplied by the Heineken Cup, the provincial game in Wales and Scotland will suffer.

As it stands, the English and French will play each other next season, although Premiership Rugby insists there has been strong interest from some provinces to join the breakaway.

If an inferior version of the Heineken Cup is in place next season, the game will lose one of its finest events that some value above the World Cup when viewed as a whole.

Any competition able to place Castres, Leinster, Northampton and the Ospreys in the same pool promises fireworks and there are a host of other matches to set pulses racing.

Saracens against Toulouse, Clermont against Harlequins, Leicester against Ulster and Gloucester against Munster are terrific fixtures capable of producing high drama.

But it is when the knockout stages arrive that the fun really begins as impossibly tight matches contested by some of the game's best players reach a nail-biting conclusion.

Staged in colourful and noisy arenas packed with adoring fans, the doomsday scenario of genuine pan-European competition ceasing to exist next season is hard to accept.

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