Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Heineken Cup battle a club power struggle

Keeping focus: English and Welsh clubs will be hoping for success in the Heineken Cup despite curent off-pitch problems

Much has been made in recent times of player power given what transpired at Kildare in Gaelic football and Sunderland in soccer with the net outcome Kieran McGeeney and Paolo Di Canio being given the door by the Lilywhites and Black Cats.

While player power has yet to manifest itself in rugby, club power most definitely has. What we are witnessing now under the guise of Heineken Cup rugby is a battle for control between the clubs – specifically English (PRL) and French (LNR) and their respective Unions or governing bodies the RFU (England) and FFR (France). It will not be portrayed as such but strip away the veneer and that is the very bottom line.

The Dublin-based ERC (European Rugby Club Ltd) is responsible for running the best rugby tournament on the planet.

Minus the presence of the club organisations (PRL and LNR) the Heineken Cup is indeed dead in the sand. Despite the French Federation's attempt to lay down the law when stating that no French club will participate in the new competition mooted by PRL and LNR (the Rugby Champions Cup), the harsh financial reality will deem that stance far from simple.

Of much more significance has been the failure of the RFU to make a similar statement. Put simply, their silence is deafening, thereby fuelling further the uncertainty cursing through the game in all six participating countries.

It's all very well Jean-Pierre Lux, as chairman of ERC, declaring that RFU CEO Ian Ritchie and President Bill Beaumont have assured him in private that the RFU would not back an Anglo-French driven Rugby Champions Cup when the RFU refuses to declare that position a la Pierre Camou and the Federation of French Rugby (FFR) in midweek.

The RFU needs their clubs on board for a successful staging of the 2015 World Cup in England. To that end, the future of the Heineken Cup is being played out in a political minefield.

When the game went open in 1995 and the English and French chose to go the club route as opposed to Union and Federation in every other major rugby playing country this was a head on collision waiting to happen. The implications now are quite frankly scary and far reaching.

Far from calling their clubs' bluff the RFU through their inaction have added to the growing feeling that this could well be the end. The IRB too are posturing rather than leading.

The best tournament there is doesn't simply run itself or repeat itself annually by chance but irony of ironies if it takes the dissolution of ERC to bring the English and French (clubs) back to the negotiating table then such might be eleventh-hour mediator Graham Mew's only way out.

In an ideal world there would be a new beginning with a twenty team tournament comprising the top six from each league (Top 14, English Premiership and Pro 12) on merit but with the proviso that there be at least one team representing each of the four countries (Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales). To that add the winners of the previous season's Heineken and Amlin Challenge cups thereby making the line up complete.

There is no hard evidence but with each passing day the indications are of the body currently running the show having to relinquish its position if the train is to leave the October 23 station with every participating nation and its professional teams still on board.

That could be the best case scenario. Any other alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

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