Rugby Union: European Cup on the brink of extinction

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Last-ditch efforts were being made yesterday to save the European Cup.

The competition, backed by Heineken and broadcast by ITV, was won last year by Toulouse after a thrilling final against Cardiff. But it has been beset by rumours and whisperings of failure, and ITV has certain misgivings about it.

Two of European Rugby Cup Ltd's leading officials, Tom Kiernan and Vernon Pugh, met ITV officials yesterday in an attempt to keep the tournament, due to begin next month, on the fixture list. But last night leading club officials in England were predicting that ITV, whose total input is in the region of pounds 15m, would pull out. If they did, Heineken would surely follow.

An ITV spokesperson said: "ITV's coverage is under discussion. There is a problem." That problem is believed to do with the scheduling of programmes and the number of matches they are supposed to cover.

Another of ITV's worries is the possible non-participation of the English clubs, particularly in light of revelations over the weekend of a newly formed European Rugby Federation which would embrace clubs in the four Home Unions as well as those in France, Italy and possibly Romania. An organisation such as ERF clearly would have plans to run their own competition, something which English Professional Rugby Union Clubs are eager to do. Anything that hindered or brought about the demise of a competition run by the present British governing bodies would aid the clubs' cause.

To date, the other participating countries in the cup, in which the top four Courage League One clubs are scheduled to play, and the Conference (the secondary competition involving the bottom six English clubs in the First Division) have all signed an agreement that they will participate for the remaining two years of the tournament. None of the English clubs have signed anything, although they have stated they will participate this season. But time is running out, with the opening matches due to be played on 12 October.