A deal to unite game's factions

Owen Slot examines the fight to control club rugby's European future
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The Independent Online
A SPLIT in Welsh rugby union was averted last night when it was announced that the top 12 clubs in the principality had unanimously backed a joint proposal by the RFU and the WRU that would add a revamped European Cup and an Anglo-Welsh club competition to the domestic leagues.

The agreement puts an end to talk of a breakaway by the Welsh club sides, whose top four clubs will gain automatic entry to an expanded European Cup. The remainder will play in a cross-border tournament against all but the top four English sides, who will also advance into the European competition.

There will be a Charity Shield style tournament in August involving matches at Twickenham and Cardiff Arms Park between the two league champions and cup winners.

Vernon Pugh, the chairman of the Welsh rugby union, last night refused to be drawn on the precise figures involved in the new formats. "The truth is that we have to sit down and devise the structure before we start talking to sponsors or TV," said Pugh, who held talks with RFU secretary, Tony Hallett, last week.

The effects of the changes will be felt far further away than either side of the Severn Bridge, and uncertainty about the future was worrying the players and officials of Milan when they made the long trip to Pontypridd on Wednesday.

The Italians knew far more about the opposition in the inaugural Heineken Cup ("We know of Jenkins. A good kicker," Sandro Manzoni, the club president, said) than they did about ever returning for another such fixture. "We need to know now if we will play again next year," Manzoni said. "This competition is the most important thing to this club, but we only know what we read in the papers.

"We have not had any news on how much money we will receive. I only know that we are getting expenses. And we have to know who will play next year. The rumours say it will be 20 teams and two from Italy. But we have to know. Do we have to win the Italian Championship or come second? We can't get to the end of the year and then find out."

They should be enlightened this week about their share of the takings - which should be pounds 20m over three years - as the directors of the competition are meeting on Tuesday in Dublin to resolve it.

There can be no question that the European competition will be valuable, but those in Pontypridd on Wednesday may have had an alternative view - and not just because the match was dire. International club soccer filled the television schedules on the same evening, and there was simply no comparison in pulling power. The Italians introduced a glimmer of the cultural contrasts that give these fixtures appeal - a headbutting flanker, a lock with the sort of overhanging stomach that seemed extinct years ago - but over 30,000 watched Rangers play Steaua Bucharest at Ibrox while only5,000 turned up at Pontypridd.

It is a point not lost on Hallett. A Wednesday night fixture that clashes with a big European football night is never going to deliver the television coverage, the newspaper space or the crowd that will bring European club rugby to prominence. Hallett wants to move the fixtures to weekends.

Money is a priority for the clubs, and those in this year's tournament will still not discover what they are to receive after Tuesday's meeting. The spoils of the event are to go to the unions, not to the clubs themselves. The unions are then expected to dish out the lion's share to competing clubs. But in Wales, for instance, the booty could be shared around the entire First Division.

Furthermore, the greatest irrationality of the organisation is that the tournament is being run by Five Nations Rugby Ltd, which has one director from each of the five nations. So Scotland and England may get a slice of the income for this year even though they did not take part.

As the lights went out on Pontypridd on Wednesday night all this seemed irrelevant. No one cared who ran the competition, no one even tried to pretend that they had seen a half-decent match. Everybody agreed that European rugby was the future.

"Such fixtures can only be good for Welsh rugby," Neil Jenkins said. The defeated Italians agreed. "It is so much closer to international standard than our competition," Diego Dominguez, the Milan and Italy stand- off, said. "We will do better next year." If invited.

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