Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Row rumbles on behind cup launch

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There were inevitable soundbites, glitzy video presentations and the usual large attendances at this week's Heineken Cup season launches in Cardiff, Dublin and Glasgow.

There is plenty to look forward to, starting in eight days' time, with the now traditional rumble of European rugby heavyweights trading metaphoric blow for blow.

Unfortunately, though, there was also a strong element of Fantasy Island-type comments echoing throughout the Millennium Stadium corridors on Monday.

European Rugby Cup chief executive Derek McGrath and chairman Jean-Pierre Lux kicked off the day by addressing a packed media briefing on the future of the tournament beyond this season.

It went on a bit - probably more than 30 minutes. Some of it was interesting, much of it predictable and all of it largely pointless.

I left the room, as did many colleagues, having heard little more than rhetoric and a reaffirmed belief that Heineken Cup rugby, as we have known and admired it, is over once the dust settles on this season's Millennium Stadium final.

McGrath spoke passionately about what the tournament has achieved during its impressive existence, about what could be achieved in the future and about what an undeniably huge success it has been with supporters across Europe.

But, as things stand, there will be no top English or French clubs in it from this summer.

For those inhabiting Mars, Premiership Rugby and Ligue Nationale de Rugby are more than halfway through serving a two-year notice period to quit ERC-run competitions, with the formation of a Rugby Champions Cup now their focus.

Barely a week ago, Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty told Press Association Sport the following: "As far as we are concerned we are not in ERC competitions, and neither are the French clubs.

"From our perspective, those competitions in their current form are over. We don't have any dispute with ERC, from our point of view, which is why the appointment of a mediator (Canadian lawyer Graeme Mew) by ERC is a bit odd.

"We've served notice, we are discharging all of our obligations during that notice period, and at the end of that notice period we will go to play in new competitions. There is no dispute about that from our point of view."

So, unless one of the biggest climbdowns in professional rugby union history happens, then that is that.

It would appear that ERC has emphatically failed to grasp the gravity of all this. If so, why more than 15 months after Premiership Rugby and LNR first served notice has there been no progress, and why is an "urgent" resumption of talks on the Heineken Cup's future not happening until October 23?

It is a bit like saying: "I know the roof of my house is leaking badly, but I will get it done in three weeks' time."

The Premiership Rugby horse has not so much bolted, but disappeared miles over the horizon. That is the reality, yet it is one that ERC seemingly finds impossible to grasp.

Deluded would not be too strong a word for it.

:: ::

Disturbing news emanated from Australia on Thursday that raises a huge question mark about the future of an outstanding international rugby player.

The Australian Rugby Union said it had "reached a mutual agreement" to grant James O'Connor an early release from his ARU contract and not offer him one for 2014.

It follows an ARU investigation into an alleged incident at Perth Airport last month when a reportedly intoxicated O'Connor attempted to board a plane to Bali and had to be escorted from the terminal building by police officers.

O'Connor, 23, will therefore not be part of Australia's November tour of Europe - the Wallabies face England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy - while he also currently does not have a Super Rugby contract for next year.

"If James chooses to stay in Australia and play Super Rugby, he would be eligible to play for the Wallabies in 2014, as long as his behaviour was consistent with our expectations and if his form warranted selection," ARU chief executive Bill Pulver said.

"We appreciate James' contribution to Australian rugby and his unique skill and flair when playing, but have determined that James must make some changes with respect to his off-field responsibilities and ensure that this approach is consistent with the values of our game.

"After assessing the evidence of numerous incidents, we have an obligation to uphold the values of our game and James understands that."

It can only be hoped that O'Connor identifies and takes on board the help he clearly needs. He is too good a player to be lost to the game.

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