Rugby Union: Balance tilting against Heineken boycott

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The Independent Online
Some strange rumours circulated around the bars and cafes of Bordeaux on Saturday night after Bath's defeat of Brive in rugby union's Heineken European Cup final. There were some odd sights too, particularly a glimpse of Sir John Hall, the owner of Newcastle, chatting to Tom Kiernan, the chairman of European Rugby Cup Ltd and a creature from a different planet entirely, over a glass of Grand Cru.

Those two leading protagonists in the depressing Heineken boycott debacle may simply have been swapping a few pleasantries, of course, but idle chit-chat has never cut much ice with Sir John. If the conversation did touch on the burning rugby issue of the moment, it was progress.

England's Premiership clubs are the motor driving the professional game and, given that Sir John and Andrew Brownsword, Bath's backer, have coughed up the readies rather than the directors of ERC, they deserve to get their own way. But Bath's victory over Brive erased the last traces of whatever warped logic lay behind the decision to forego next season's Heineken. To stick to the boycott would be mad.

The clubs know they have made a tactical misjudgement and the united front is crumbling. Since the boycott was declared last month, coaches and players have obeyed the gagging orders slapped on them. On Saturday night, though, the gags came off. Both Andy Robinson, the Bath coach, and Jon Callard, who scored all their points in a 19-18 victory in the final, expressed their misgivings.

There is still a possibility that English clubs will take part next season, not least because Brownsword, whose millions have financed Bath's conquest, will now come under pressure to make doveish overtures to the hawks among his fellow owner-investors. With influential members of the Twickenham hierarchy looking to impose a Super 12-style draft system on participating teams, the only way the clubs can hope to protect their power base is by hammering out their own agreement with ERC.

With pounds 4m of Heineken money in the pot for English sides next season, the cost of a boycott may prove too great. As Ieuan Evans, the Bath wing, said: "We've been pleading for this competition for years and now we've got it, we're chucking it away. It's a travesty."