Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Euro future bright as clubs edge closer to deal that could save the Heineken Cup

Running man: Ulsterman Ian Whitten on the charge for Exeter Chiefs, scoring a try in the 44-29 rout against Cardiff at Sandy Park

The Heineken Cup's future looks set to become clearer this week, with representatives of the Celtic and Italian unions meeting with the Rugby Football Union in an attempt to reach a new agreement with the English and French clubs.

Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie will have a key role in any potential breakthrough, and mistrust appears to have been replaced by rationality.

This is expected to be a "critical week" to hopes of a deal being forged to ensure that all six nations are represented in a new European tournament next season, one well-placed source said last night.

There is known to be still a significant gap between, on the one side, the English and French clubs, who are pushing ahead with their breakaway Rugby Champions' Cup having served notice to leave the Heineken Cup in June 2012, and, on the other, their Celtic and Italian rivals.

However, with the Celtic nations and Italy set to compromise on the demands by the English and French for a three-way split of revenues and merit-based qualification from the Pro12, there is an increasing sense that a deal can be struck.

But the biggest hurdle appears to be that of governance of the tournament.

Premiership Rugby and their French counterparts insist that their new tournament should be run by the clubs, not the unions, which would be a major departure from the current Heineken Cup set-up.

It is believed, however, that a compromise deal of each country having one club representative and one union representative on a new 12-man board will be offered.

The main area of debate is the weight of the votes that each country would then be allocated.

As for the funding distribution, the Celtic and Italian clubs have also to agree how any new arrangement would be split between the Pro12 teams.

Meanwhile two Ulster exiles played important roles for Exeter Chiefs in their six-try outing against Cardiff Blues at Sandy Park yesterday.

Outside-centre Ian Whitten scored the last of the hosts' half dozen tries, with fly-half Gareth Steenson converting four of the six as well as landing a penalty to end the day with exactly one quarter of his team's points in a 44-29 triumph.

Remarkably, Cardiff recovered from a 36-3 interval deficit by touching down four times to leave with a four-tries bonus.

That meant that Exeter had scored more points than any team in the Heineken Cup at that stage.

But just a couple of hours later defending champions Toulon beat Glasgow Warriors 51-28 in their clash at Stade Félix Mayol where, having matched the Chiefs' six tries, they managed to top the points-for chart by converting the lot as well as kicking three penalties.

Here, too, there was a great second-half fight-back which saw the Gregor Townsend-coached Scots – who had trailed 34-0 at the break – match Cardiff's heroics by rallying with a four-try post-interval salvo, all converted by Ruaridh Jackson, in the space of 20 minutes to earn themselves a bonus point.

Jonny Wilkinson captained Toulon and with customary accuracy booted home three conversions and a penalty before leaving the pitch with a hand injury.

England's 2003 World Cup hero was adding the extras and putting the French out of reach as his side moved the ball at pace and with accuracy to mark themselves down as tournament favourites.

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