Rugby Union: England left on the European fringes

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As the Rugby Football Union has done nothing but pooh-pooh everyone else's European Rugby Cup, there is nothing the rest of rugby-playing Europe would like better than for the prototype competition that begins today to be a roaring success.

The satisfaction would come not only from putting in place a level of sub-international competition deemed vital by all concerned (England included), but from sticking up two fingers at the RFU's rejectionist stance.

It is, however, scarcely an auspicious start to have the first match in Romania, where Toulouse play Farul in the Black Sea port of Constanta. "I would have been far happier if it had started with a big game within the UK, but it's a tournament which has been very difficult to put together," Vernon Pugh, the Welsh Rugby Union chairman, said.

Pugh's view - shared by the French, Irish, Italians and Romanians, as well as the Scots, who are signed up for next season - is that it is better to get on immediately with a European competition, however imperfect. The RFU's appears to be that English clubs will eventually participate, but only if everyone else meekly falls in with the RFU's requirements.

This is not going down well with its own clubs, not now that they know there is already pounds 7m a year in television and sponsorship monies available to participants. When this was announced last week, the first thing Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary, did was pour further scorn on the competition. Pugh insists that this commercial backing is not dependent on English involvement next season, although it would certainly help, not only in giving the European Rugby Cup credibility but also in helping it fulfil its principal objective: to elevate the standard of European players.

"I believe it is an absolutely essential part of the Northern hemisphere game if we are ever going to compete effectively against the Southern hemisphere - the closest we will get to an effective tier one below international level," Pugh said. "We felt more strongly than others that it had to happen sooner rather than later."

The tempo will pick up tomorrow when Swansea, the Welsh Cup holders, meet Munster in Limerick, the Irish province fielding an entire pack of internationals as well as both half-backs. Four pools of three will each provide one semi- finalist, with the final to be played at Cardiff Arms Park on 7 January - provided the finalists include Cardiff, Pontypridd or Swansea.

n The Fijian tourists, who play at Treorchy tomorrow, have been warned by their coach, the former All Black prop Brad Johnstone, to cut out dirty play after a number of ugly clashes marred their 22-21 defeat by Cardiff on Saturday.

EUROPEAN RUGBY CUP: Pool A Farul Constanta, Toulouse, Treviso; Pool B Begles, Cardiff, Ulster; Pool C Leinster, Milan, Pontypridd; Pool D Castres, Munster, Swansea.

Schedule: 31 Oct Farul Constanta v Toulouse; 1 Nov Milan v Leinster, Munster v Swansea (Limerick); 7 Nov Treviso v Farul Constanta; 8 Nov Castres v Munster; 21 Nov Begles v Cardiff; 22 Nov Pontypridd v Milan; 28 Nov Cardiff v Ulster; 5 Dec Swansea v Castres; 6 Dec Leinster v Pontypridd (Dublin); 12 Dec Toulouse v Treviso; 13 Dec Ulster v Begles (Belfast); 30 Dec Semi-finals: A v D, B v C; 7 Jan Final (Cardiff, provisional).