Rugby Union: Brive coach slams English clubs' stance on Europe

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The Independent Online
England's militant senior clubs insist they have the full support of their French counterparts in their dispute with the organisers of the Heineken Cup - a committee room conflict that threatens the tournament's very existence. But, as Chris Hewett reports, the first cracks in the united front have started to appear.

Never trust a strong, silent type, especially one with a vested interest to protect. Laurent Seigne, the former French Test prop whose coaching methods at Brive notoriously combine the brutal with the Trappist, yesterday broke ranks with the grand Anglo-French alliance that has set a time bomb ticking away beneath the outstanding club competition in world rugby.

Seigne does not speak often - neither in public nor, according to tales emanating from the European champions' dressing-room, in private - but when he does venture an opinion, it tends to cause ructions. His description of Pontypridd players as "semi-civilised animals" after the brawl in Le Bar Toulzac last September ruffled plenty of feathers and he did his level best to raise a few hackles yesterday.

"The Heineken Cup is the ultimate," he pronounced as the rugby grapevine continued to suggest that the English clubs' decision to boycott the tournament had left it dead in the water. "We were very much into the competition from its launch because the games were like internationals and we have continued to see matches of a different level and quality. As a club, we have made progress with each fixture."

It was a clear statement of support for the tournament, the future of which is likely to be decided this week. Board members of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organising body, meet in Dublin on Friday to discuss next season's fixture schedules, the issue ostensibly responsible for English discontent. The men in grey suits insist a solution can be hammered out, especially if they manage to seduce the unpredictable French contingent

Sadly, they appear to be mistaken. The Allied Dunbar Premiership clubs remain adamant that they will not participate in any ERC tournament next season, not simply because of the wrangle over fixtures but because of a profound mistrust of senior board members, notably Tom Kiernan, the Irish chairman, and Vernon Pugh of Wales. The decision of Charles Levison, the Wasps executive who represented the interests of the English clubs, to resign from the board leaves Bill Beaumont, a Rugby Football Union nominee, as the only Englishman likely to attend on Friday.

"I don't think there is a single English club against the idea of European rugby," insisted one high-profile Premiership chief executive yesterday. "But we want Europe to work to the benefit of us all and at the moment, that isn't happening. It doesn't look like happening, either, not with ERC in charge. There are just too many issues to resolve."

Meanwhile, Michael Lynagh, the 34-year-old former Wallaby stand-off and captain whose craftsmanship has been the essential ingredient in Saracens' sudden challenge for Premiership honours, was today expected to confirm his retirement at the end of the season. Philippe Sella, the north London clubs' equally venerable French centre, has already announced that this will be his final top-level campaign.