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Irish know value of Euro

By Niall Crozier

The future of the two competitions in which Ulster play currently looks more perilous than ever before.

Courtesy of the English Premiership clubs and, to a lesser extent, the French, the format of the Heineken Cup has been under attack for some time.

But now the RaboDirect PRO12 is under serious threat, too, with the four Welsh regions – Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – having received a lucrative offer from Premier Rugby Limited and BT Sport, PRL's broadcast partner.

The money being used to woo the Welsh is reckoned to be £4million per season to each of the regions.

BT Sport's role on the European Cup and PRO12 fronts is the key ingredient. As things stand, Ulster are in danger of losing their income from those two competitions, suffering a real reduction in status if they end up competing in events of reduced standing and, as a result, being left with an 18,000 capacity stadium they could no longer fill.

At the moment the ball is in the court of the Welsh regions and their Union, with the future of the PRO12, probably the Heineken Cup and quite possibly the Six Nations Championship under threat.

The outcome hinges on who blinks first – the Union or the regions. If the regions defy their Union by taking the money and running to team up with the top English clubs, the knock-on effect will be enormous for rugby's future.

With this being the final season of RaboDirect backing for the PRO12, already there is a sponsorship void to be filled.

Just who might be willing to step up at this point is anyone's guess. What we do know for certain, however, is that any new sponsor's contribution is not going to be worth £4million per season – or anything remotely like it – to the Welsh participants or anyone else.

All in all it's a grim situation, with the Irish, Scots and Italians watching anxiously.

Let's make no bones about it; if the Welsh jump ship and throw in their lot with England's biggest clubs in exchange for their share of the BT millions, the PRO12 will be a thing of the past.

Equally worrying is the prospect of Ireland's best players then choosing to move on in pursuit of mind-boggling wages not available here.

But all is not lost just yet, for yesterday saw the English giants' proposal to admit four Welsh regions to a 16-team Anglo-Welsh Premiership suffer a serious setback when Geoff Irvine, chairman of England's second-tier Championship clubs, fired a telling shot across the bows of those on both sides of the Severn.

"I really cannot see the RFU admitting four Welsh clubs – the English game would go berserk," Irvine warned.

"As for agreeing to give Welsh clubs immunity from relegation, they simply can't do that. The regulations over promotion and relegation are governed by the RFU, not Premiership Rugby, and they can't just make the rules up as they go along."

The Championship chairman's parting shot was: "It's scandalous, but it's just typical of the way this game is at the moment."

Coming just ahead of yesterday's Welsh Rugby Union board meeting, the timing of Irvine's hard-hitting comments was no mere coincidence. And with his words of warning having been the stick, right on cue the WRU waggled a carrot in the form of new proposals for the regions to ponder, with these including distribution of funding and player release for Wales duties.

The regions are being given 10 days to respond and a further four-day period is being set aside to make one last effort to thrash out differences before the end of the month.

The regions' biggest bone of contention concerns the WRU's insistence that they will not sanction a new European tournament – proposed by the English and French – to replace the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge unless that has "been agreed by the International Rugby Board".

But the regions' response was: "The Rugby Champions' Cup will bring the biggest increase of funding into the Welsh game in five years."

And in an apparent inducement to others, ourselves included, the statement added: "It will increase funding to the Irish clubs and protect the Scottish clubs."

It concluded: "Bringing £12million in three years into the Welsh game does not threaten the Six Nations or bring about its demise."

Watch this space.

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