Brewers ready to stand another round

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The Independent Online
The first real sign that an outbreak of sanity is about to refresh those parts of the British rugby community that seemed beyond the reach of reason less than a fortnight ago emerged yesterday when Heineken, sponsors of the European Cup, signalled their desire to establish new long-term links with the game.

The brewers have received sufficient assurances from the competition organisers, European Rugby Cup Limited, to persuade them not only to stay on board until their existing deal runs out at the end of next season but also to discuss the possibility of a follow-on agreement worth substantially more than their current pounds 5m contribution.

Given that many of the leading ERC figures are also involved in the various factions manoeuvring for prime positions in rugby's new professional landscape, Heineken's vote of confidence suggests stability is finally in sight after months of upheaval. It is a far cry from the situation that prevailed last Friday night, when Heineken representatives were wondering whether they should bother.

Having seen a pounds 15m network broadcasting deal with ITV slip away through the neglect of ERC, the sponsors were understandably reticent about paying out significant sums to a piper whose tunes seemed of the loony variety.

"There was a wobble, yes," said Jolyon Armstrong, the Heineken spokesman, yesterday. "We reserved our position for obvious reasons; it was a sticky situation for every one. We are experienced enough in the field of sports sponsorship to appreciate that new ventures are always likely to have teething troubles. We needed some reassurance, which we duly received."

Armstrong said he was hopeful that television coverage, restricted last weekend to an S4C broadcast of the Wasps-Cardiff game, would expand. Sky and the BBC are involved in discussions, which should bear fruit by the quarter-finals.

By that time, Scotland will be extremely fortunate to have any direct interest. All three of their district sides were defeated in the opening round of matches at the weekend and the quality of opposition is such that there may be little or no relief as the pool phase unfolds.

However, the Scots have laid an important foundation stone for next season's putative Super League by constituting Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders and Caledonia Reds as clubs rather than districts to meet the expected entry requirements.

Scott Hastings, a virtual certainty to lead his country against Australia next month in the absence of the injured Rob Wainwright, admitted after Edinburgh's defeat by Bath on Saturday that existing club sides north of the border could not hope to survive in competitive Continental rugby.

One Scot who will not be appearing for anyone next season is the 22- year-old prop Jason Fayers, who was yesterday banned for four years for violent conduct. The Scottish Rugby Union viewed video footage of Fayers, a veterinary surgeon who plays for Edinburgh Academicals, punching Craig Halliday at a line-out during the match against Kelso in September.

As a result of the attack Halliday needed two metal plates inserted in a broken jaw. Fayers may yet find himself in even hotter water, for prosecution has not yet been ruled out.

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