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IRB must act as Italians feel insulted by Magners ‘snub’

By Peter Bills

The Celtic League countries were last night accused of greed and “insulting the Italians” after the precise financial demands they made to Italian rugby to participate in the Magners League, finally emerged.

It was revealed that the Celtic countries insisted on a whopping annual 3 million euros pledge — 9 million euros guaranteed for a 3-year deal — in which two Italian clubs, probably Benetton Treviso and Viadana, join the Magners.

Furthermore, in an act which enraged by the Italian Federation, the Celtic countries insisted on a clause that would have allowed them to kick out of the tournament the Italian representatives, after three years if they so wished. Conversely, Italy was offered no such right to demand the expulsion of any of the other countries.

An Italian official who insisted on anonymity said “We feel insulted by these demands. It is quite clear that the Celtic countries are not interested in helping us by having two of our teams in the Celtic League.”

The Italians baulked at paying such a high sum in these tough economic times. They were willing to go to 1.5 million euros a year and then make up the difference if they could find money from new sponsors in Italy. But apparently, that offer was not enough for Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The timing of this bad feeling generated by the unsatisfactory outcome could hardly be worse. Italy comes to Dublin to play Ireland this Saturday and their officials seem sure to be smarting over what they regard as a snub. A source told me: “Under this proposal, after three years, the original Celtic teams could expel Italy if they wished. This did not apply to anyone else, which Italy considered an insult as Italy was not being welcomed as an equal partner. Italy was very keen to join the Celtic League from a rugby point of view but felt that the financial guarantees were too onerous in these economic times.”

But the long term cost to the game could dwarf the sums demanded by the Celtic countries. Franco Smith, South African coach of Benetton Treviso, warned that unless Italian clubs gained access to a tournament of higher standards, the game in Italy was likely to retreat. “It could even go back to being semi professional” he said, meaning that the chances of future Italian national teams being more competitive in the 6 Nations, were virtually nil.

Smith said that he feared for the future of the game in Italy without a step up to higher playing levels. “Rugby here will be a disaster in the future; it might even have to go back to a semi professional game.”

It seems increasingly likely that the only way the impasse could be broken is for the IRB to become involved. If they sit on their hands and refuse to act with financial help, it would bring into question their whole self-proclaimed strategy of trying to expand and improve the game worldwide, especially among the second tier nations.

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