Rugby Union: French have the Welsh surrounded

Just three British clubs are in next week's European quarter-finals. Tim Glover asks why
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The Independent Online
IF THE people of France have heard of Caerphilly it is probably in the context of cheeses. If not, the small Welsh town will take a few samples of their local produce, a Celtic answer to Brie, when they visit Brive next Saturday in the quarter-finals of the European Shield.

It would be tempting to say it will be a cracker but in reality it looks a mismatch. In three years and 23 matches of European competition, Brive have lost just three times. Their last defeat, of course, was to Bath in the final of the European Cup in front of 36,000 at Bordeaux last season. It was at once a highlight and a low point.

Brive, the European Cup winners in 1997, dropped to the second-tier Shield because of a poor domestic season; Bath never had a chance of defending the Cup because of the decision of the English clubs to boycott the tournament. It was yet another round in the marathon bout between the English clubs and the authorities.

England took their ball home for several reasons: they want more meritocracy, more money, more voting rights, more say in the running of European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC), the matches spread throughout the season instead of concentrated in a six-week spell and the cup final switched to May instead of January. They also want the Five Nations moved to the end of the season and played over five successive weekends.

The directors of ERC believe they have compromised on several issues. They have reduced their income from the tournament's finances from 10 per cent to five per cent, have agreed to stagger the fixtures and have promised more money from next year. As it is, the money is distributed to the clubs through their governing bodies. In addition, clubs playing home matches are allowed to keep the gate money.

Europe has badly missed not only the English but also the two top clubs in Wales, Swansea and Cardiff, who, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of modern rugby, played each other yesterday as part of their Anglo-Welsh programme. The split led to the withdrawal of the sponsors Heineken and the coverage of BSkyB.

Most of the income this season has come from the French TV channel FR2 and there has been input from the BBC in Scotland and Ireland. The BBC in Wales wanted to show European matches but felt that the Welsh channel S4C got the nod because they had picked up the domestic contract for Welsh rugby. RTE in Ireland felt similarly aggrieved.

The other side of the coin is that clubs like Bath will have badly missed Europe. The prize money and commercial spin-offs (like selling all their replica cup jerseys at pounds 75 a time), were good for Bath and their corporate image. It helped them to attract major sponsors in Adidas and Strongbow.

"The strange thing about the European competition," said an ERC insider, "is that virtually everybody wants it - the clubs, players, sponsors and television. It was born on the success of the Five Nations and if it is allowed to develop it could become the northern hemisphere's answer to the Super Twelve and the next tier below international rugby."

Next season the tournament will be marketed by ISL, once of the major players in sport, and they have promised a minimum of pounds 10m over four years from sponsorship and television. Whether they will have time to deliver depends on the outcome of two key meetings on 31 January, the day after the European Cup final. That is when the French clubs, headed by the former full-back Serge Blanco, want assurances from ERC on, among other things, England's participation and greater profitability. If these are not forthcoming Blanco has said that France will pull out.

Simultaneously, the prospects for the proposed British League will be discussed. If that goes ahead, in World Cup year, with perhaps 12 teams from England, four from Wales and two from Scotland and Ireland, there would not be enough weekends in the season to accommodate the Allied Dunbar Premiership. Just to further complicate the picture, there are those who want, above all else, a European League.

Meanwhile, those still left in Europe are in favour of a single currency - whatever happens next weekend they will share pounds 198,000. Ulster, who play Toulouse at Ravenhill on Friday evening in the European Cup quarter- finals, have sold 12,000 tickets. On Saturday Llanelli travel to Perpignan, Pontypridd to Stade Francais and, on Sunday, Munster to Colomiers.

In the Shield, Caerphilly, who are surrounded in the last eight by seven French clubs, will travel in style, sharing a 99-seater charter flight with Llanelli from Cardiff airport. Caerphilly's pounds 10,000 a year part-timers will be supported in Brive by a single coach-load of fans. "This is a new experience for us and the biggest day in the club's history," Don Llewellyn, the Director of Rugby, said. "I think the town is more famous now for its rugby than its cheese."

Not in Brive, it isn't. "We know nothing about Caerphilly," Christophe Lamaison, the international centre, said. "We haven't even seen a video of them playing and we don't know how they got to this stage."

By contrast, Caerphilly, who beat Racing Club in Paris en route to the quarter-finals, have obtained four videos of Brive. None of them, however, make pleasant viewing.