Power game divides Europe

Owen Slot examines the fight to control international club rugby
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The Independent Online
THE rugby power bases in England and Wales continued to polarise last week. The English and the Welsh clubs have pooled their strengths, and the RFU and the WRU have formed a similar and unlikely union. As they fight for control of the game - and this week's bout is over the Heineken European Cup - the effects are far-reaching. Just ask Milan, who are a big part of the game's future but do not have a clue what it means.

Last week, the Italians were in Pontypridd to play their foreign fixture in this, the inaugural Heineken Cup. They knew far more about the opposition ("We know of Jenkins. A good kicker, we think," Sandro Manzoni, the club president, said) than they did about their position on 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."

At this rate they will probably not have a choice. 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. However, Milan will soon hearthat the English and Welsh clubs are bandying about figures of around pounds 110m for a different version of the European competition. And they surely already know that Tony Hallett, secretary of the RFU, is talking different numbers, and a different tournament too.

With three factions trying to control a European competition, there can be no question that it is valuable. But those in Pontypridd on Wednesday may have had an alternative view - and not just because the match was dire. International club football 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 thatseemed extinct years ago - but over 30,000 watched Rangers play Steaua Bucharest at Ibrox while only 5,000 turned up at Pontypridd for what, given the inaugural nature of the event, was a historic night.

It is a point not lost on Tony 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. He also wants to see the pounds 20m figure stretch. "For England to go in with no further money on the table would be strange," he said. "With more clubs, they'd be dividing the same pot by more."

Money is, of course, 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, where there are three clubs involved, the booty could well be shared round 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," said Neil Jenkins. Even the HTV audience voted in favour, Pontypridd attracting a bigger audience than Blackburn's football match before it. The defeated Italiansagreed. "It is so much closer to international standard than our country's competition," Diego Dominguez, the Milan and Italy stand-off, said. "We will do better next year. Does anyone know what is happening next year?"