Rugby Union: English clubs lose French allies

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The Independent Online
THE AUDACIOUS attempt by England's professional clubs to hijack the European rugby scene looked dead in the water last night, fatally undermined by the very French teams they considered their most valuable allies. Toulouse and Begles-Bordeaux finally bowed to intense pressure from their own federation and agreed to participate alongside Stade Francais, Perpignan and Colomiers in next season's official, establishment-backed tournament.

"I suspect that is the end of the story," admitted Doug Ash, the chief executive of English First Division Rugby, the Premiership clubs' umbrella organisation. "We see Toulouse, in particular, as a hugely influential club, a major opinion former in France. Without their support it will be very difficult to put together a quality competition."

In essence, the English now have two choices: either to swallow their pride and strike a late peace accord with the directors of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisers of the last three Heineken Cup tournaments, or stick to the ill-conceived boycott they announced in January. "Of course we still want the English," said one ERC insider yesterday. "The competition is hopelessly devalued without them. Bath are the champions of Europe, for heaven's sake, and they are champions of great stature. The tournament will go ahead come what may, but it would be a whole lot better from all points of view, for the players as well as the sponsors and broadcasters, with the best of England on board."

Graham Smith, one of the more diplomatic members of the Rugby Football Union's management board, was attending today's ERC meeting in Dublin and the RFU will participate in Six Nations Committee talks aimed at breaking the impasse. Even Ash felt able to open the door a little by saying: "I can't really see the clubs agreeing to such a volte face but you never say never."

Ash and his colleagues suffered a second blow yesterday when the RFU refused to approve the clubs' initial batch of Premiership fixtures covering the first five weeks of the new season, scheduled to begin on 5 September. The list left space for "competitive friendlies" against Cardiff and Swansea, the two clubs in dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union, but Twickenham spiked the idea by insisting that all 14 top-flight English teams should play a Premiership match every weekend.