Rugby Union: English clubs return to European fold

Six-hour Paris summit ends with agreement at last and an eight- year deal.
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ENGLISH CLUBS will be participating in the European Cup next season. In the early hours of yesterday morning in a Paris hotel an agreement was finally reached which secures the future of the competition for the next eight years. Furthermore, the English Premiership clubs have agreed to withdraw their submission to the European Commission, which had challenged the regulations of the International Rugby Board and the Rugby Football Union.

There was no sense of triumphalism yesterday from the tournament's governing body, European Rugby Cup Ltd, but there is no doubt that, under the determined chairmanship of Ireland's Tom Kiernan, they have won an overwhelming victory.

The document agreed yesterday bears little resemblance to the one submitted by the English and French clubs last month. The key points of the agreement are:

l An eight-year deal.

l ERC to continue to organise and run the competition.

l A full-time chief executive to be appointed, independent of the Five Nations' Committee.

l Withdrawal of the English clubs' European application challenging the regulations of IRB and RFU.

l A minimum number of two clubs per nation and a maximum of six.

l A maximum of 24 clubs competing next season, which will be reduced to 20 the following year. Next season, England and France will have six teams each, Wales five, Ireland three, Scotland and Italy two apiece.

l Ownership rights: England and France 27.8 per cent each, Wales 16.68 per cent, Scotland and Ireland 11.12 per cent each, Italy 5.6 per cent.

The meeting, which had been planned to last no more than an hour and a half, stretched to almost six hours, and the result will be welcomed by all who have the game's best interests at heart. A chorus of approval from the clubs was led by Dick Best, the London Irish coach. "This is outstanding news for English rugby," he said. "The European Cup is obviously the premier competition in the northern hemisphere. With the World Cup and Europe on the agenda for next season it should be a vintage year." His sentiments were echoed by Vernon Pugh, an ERC director and chairman of the IRB. "This will give us the stability that everyone wants and means a terrific future for the competition," he said.

Rob Andrew, the Newcastle director of rugby, was slightly cooler, however. "There is no doubt that we should be back in," he said. "It's a question of being fair and equitable, which is why we are not in it this year.If fairness has been achieved that has to be good - the European Cup should be the centrepiece of Europe below the Five Nations. The structure of the season has to be addressed, but we are getting there."

The fact that it has been a massive victory not only for common sense but for ERC is now a matter for the historians, but had agreement been reached on the basis of the document proposed by the English and French clubs last month, there is no doubt that rugby's future would have been very much bleaker this morning.

To persuade the clubs to withdraw their submission to the European Commission is a big achievement. This challenge to the IRB's authority was seen as the last refuge for the clubs in their attempts to win control and although it was far from being a foregone conclusion, victory in the European courts would have grievously weakened the power of the ruling bodies. Yesterday's deal has removed that threat, but as with so many aspects of this ruinous battle, one is forced to ask the question - was it worth it?

Certainly not for the clubs who have had to concede on every important point. One also has to question the part played by the RFU, whose board of management supported the clubs on several points in the European application and were also prepared to hand over to them control of the European Cup.

Had the RFU firmly resolved to stand by their partners in the IRB rather than alongside their leading clubs then the oxygen so essential to the clubs' survival would have been cut off and a great deal of unnecessary pain and hardship would have been averted. It was not until the meeting of the RFU council, 10 days ago, at which Bill Beaumont, Fran Cotton and Graham Smith proposed that England must be represented in Europe irrespective of the stance taken by the Premiership clubs, that a turning point was reached and that the clubs recognised the futility of continuing the conflict.

As it is, it has taken far too long for common sense to prevail, but with the decision to impose some form of capping on players' wages, followed by this eight-year agreement for the European Cup, which should ensure a long and healthy future for the competition, we can perhaps look upon the final days of March 1999 as a watershed for the game.