Rugby Union: Clubs withdraw from Europe to spark new crisis

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The Independent Online
England's top-flight Premiership clubs last night dragged the game into a new political crisis by announcing a unanimous boycott of next season's Heineken Cup and European Conference competitions.

Chris Hewett says they have left the tournament organisers with no option but to rethink their position.

The owner-investors behind England's big-time professional outfits have pumped around pounds 20m into the game over the last couple of years and they have clearly decided it is high time they moved to protect their investments. None of the 12 Allied Dunbar Premiership One teams will compete in either of next season's European competitions in protest at what they consider a costly and unworkable fixture list.

Board members of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the body charged with administering both the hugely successful Heineken Cup and the miserable damp squib known as the European Conference, must have known they were sailing into stormy waters when they presented the clubs with a fait accompli last month. Their decision to block book a six-week period for next season's pool stages prompted a predictably furious reaction from the English clubs and last night, those clubs voted to put up rather than shut up.

English First Division Rugby, a pressure group representing all 12 Premiership One teams, released a statement confirming the boycott. "European rugby is felt to be hugely important for the future of the game, but the existing structure works to the detriment of domestic league rugby," it said. "It has therefore been decided, as from next season, not to participate in the ERC competitions in order to create a better structure.

"Progress in the professional game over the last 18 months has been remarkable - record club attendances, substantial increases in commercial income and a dramatic improvement in playing standards. Following on from this, all the investors have unanimously reconfirmed their long-term enthusiasm for the game and their commitment to carrying club rugby to even higher levels."

If the statement smacked of brinkmanship, there was no doubting the owners' willingness to go straight over the edge of the cliff if necessary. They have left the ball firmly in the court of the ERC board; either Tom Kiernan, the chairman, and his colleagues enter into a radical revision of their fixture plans - and do it in full consultation with the clubs - or they will find themselves presiding over a competition barely worth the grass on which it is played.

Unanimity among the clubs means that even Bath, finalists this season and the most Euro-minded of the English contingent, agreed to go with the flow. Last night, Tony Swift, their chief executive, said: "Talk to the players and coaches and you will understand how much the Heineken Cup means to us, but European rugby has to be played within a structure that works to the benefit of everyone."

There was no word from France on the English decision, but representatives of leading clubs from both countries have forged close links and are likely to speak with one voice on the fixture issue. The two major powers have found themselves repeatedly outnumbered by the Celtic bloc on important votes, but word from Wales suggests that Cardiff, deeply at loggerheads with its own union, would jump at the chance to enter a new competition dominated by the Anglo-French axis.