Rugby Union: Clubs' Europe plan needs conference system

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The Independent Online
JUST WHEN you thought it was safe to return to the clubhouse bar after three long years of committee room argy-bargy, British rugby is on the verge of another political eruption. England's professional clubs are planning, with the full knowledge and support of the Rugby Football Union, an eleventh hour return to European competition that would lead to a radical restructuring of the Allied Dunbar Premiership and, inevitably, a further falling out with the governing body of the game worldwide.

A little over four weeks before the scheduled start of the English campaign, tens of thousands of long-suffering supporters are still entirely in the dark as to their clubs' fixture arrangements. Now we have an explanation for the delay. A new cross-border tournament involving as many as 40 teams and starting in October is firmly in the pipeline and, if agreement is reached, the Premiership will almost certainly be split into two American Football-style "conferences" to create the necessary elbow room in a hopelessly top heavy programme.

All 14 Premiership One clubs would be involved in the new competition along with at least eight of the finest French teams, including Brive and Toulouse, and very probably more. Cardiff, who have effectively severed all links with the Welsh Rugby Union, are desperate to be involved while Swansea and the top Italian sides, Benetton Treviso and Milan, are keen to join the party. Even the ultra-conservative Scots, impassioned recent critics of both the RFU and the English clubs, are showing an interest. Only the Irish are keeping their distance.

However, the situation is complicated by the determination of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the high-powered administrative body behind the three successful Heineken Cup tournaments, to cling on to power. The ERC directors, who boast three International Board executive members among their number, meet later this week to discuss the implications of the rival project and are certain to call on all national unions to remain loyal to the original competition.

The English clubs voted last January to blank all future ERC-run tournaments and have now been joined in their boycott by almost all their big-name brethren in France. If ERC and, by extension, the IB choose to dig in their heels, the likes of Bath and Toulouse could soon find themselves accompanying Manchester United, Milan and other European Superleague enthusiasts in the courts.

"Much depends on what happens over the next 72 hours," said Doug Ash, chief executive of English First Division Rugby, the Premiership clubs' umbrella organisation. "We've had some very encouraging discussions with potential sponsors and broadcasters and we're quietly confident of putting something in place for the coming season. If it happens, we'll obviously need to look at the Premiership fixture list. A seven-team conference system, followed by play-offs, is one option under consideration."

The RFU, now under the pro-active chairmanship of Brian Baister, remain unconvinced that any new tournament can be signed, sealed and delivered in the time available, but their decision to back the project in principle and seek immediate discussions with other governing bodies is the clearest possible indication that they believe ERC to be dead in the water. The clubs certainly take that view.

"ERC have no sponsors, no broadcasters and few participants, so it's difficult to see where they're going," Ash said.

At least David Campese, the great Australian wing now in semi-retirement, knows precisely where he is going: Singapore. The local union has persuaded the most prolific try-scorer in Test history to join Justin Sampson in coaching the national team in the forthcoming Asian Championship, which will double as a qualifying tournament for the World Cup.

Campese, who intends to lead Australia's sevens team at the Commonwealth Games next month before taking up his new post, will join a rugby nation on a hot streak with two recent victories in the bank.