Cup leaves Pickering in a pickle

RUGBY UNION

THE EUROPEAN CUP, perhaps the most explosive political rugby ball to have been rucked and mauled over by the game's warring administrators during the past year of internecine strife, is in serious danger of going ahead this weekend without a serious financial backer.

Failure to secure a new agreement in the next 48 hours will leave the revered competition's management board contemplating a hat-trick of ruinous blows to their credibility, having already seen the leading English clubs and one of their major broadcasters, BSkyB, disappear through the exit door.

Roger Pickering, the tournament director, accepted yesterday that Friday's opening encounter between Ulster and Edinburgh Reivers in Belfast was arriving far more quickly than any new sponsorship deal. "We have a meeting in London tomorrow with an interested party but the time element is against us making any announcement before the pool phase kicks off," he conceded. "I'm very confident of agreeing a fresh contract, but the discussions look like taking us into next week."

Heineken, the brewers who poured some pounds 10m into the venture in the space of three seasons and in the process helped create the finest club tournament in the world game, fear the firm is being frozen out by Pickering and his colleagues on the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd. "The last thing we want to do is walk away, but we would like a long-term agreement in exchange for our support of a competition that, for this season at least, has been both commercially and competitively devalued," one Heineken insider said yesterday. "We've got pounds 3m to spend on rugby this season but, as things stand, we can't find a home for it."

Pickering, who insisted yesterday that French television money was sufficient to underwrite this season's competition, said Heineken were still "in the frame". But the ERC board are reluctant to sign any lengthy commitment - the directors believe that an English return next season would attract a raft of big-spending sponsors and render a single-backer deal uneconomic.

Kevin Bowring has agreed a part-time coaching deal with Newbury, the ambitious Jewsons National League One club.

Gareth Rees, Wasps' Canadian stand-off, has been released after spending two nights in hospital, having been concussed in Sunday's friendly against Swansea. Rees rests for the mandatory three weeks.

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