Rugby Union: French union opts to stay loyal

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RUGBY WOULD not be the same without liberal doses of distortion, double speak and the threat of a split on the northern hemisphere landscape. The battle over European competition hit new levels of confusion yesterday; while both old guard and new were insisting their rival tournaments would go ahead, the top French clubs were arguing among themselves over next season's cross-border fixture list.

European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisers of the last three wildly successful Heineken Cup competitions, claimed a decisive victory when Bernard Lapasset, president of the French Federation, confirmed his union's decision to remain loyal to the established tournament, if only for another year. Almost in the same breath, England's professional clubs announced their alternative event had the backing of seven top French outfits: Toulouse, Castres, Brive, Pau, Bourgoin, Begles-Bordeaux and Narbonne.

English confidence was underlined by yesterday's publication of the first five Allied Dunbar Premiership fixtures. In each case, six matches were listed rather than seven: a clear indication the Premiership chiefs were planning to split the domestic league competition into two seven-team conferences to make room for a European dimension to the season.

"We are preparing to send out preliminary contracts for our European competition next week and we're confident the French contingent will grow rather than contract," said a spokesman for English First Division Rugby, the Premiership clubs' umbrella organisation. "We also know that Cardiff and Swansea are on board. Three very fine French clubs have decided to go with ERC and we respect their decision, but we've still got the cream of the crop."

Those three teams - the French champions, Stade Francais, the runners- up, Perpignan, and Colomiers, the European Conference winners last season - were a big catch for the hard-pressed ERC directors and the board members were hopeful that Toulouse and Begles-Bordeaux would also turn their backs on the English. Both clubs were meeting last night to decide which way to jump. Rejection of ERC's lucrative offer of extra cash would leave French rugby split from top to bottom.

Poor Brian Baister, the newly elected chairman of the Rugby Football Union's management board, was put in a delicate position by yesterday's events. He met with Lapasset on Tuesday and the two men agreed a new European competition should be organised for the 1999-2000 season, but that private pact did nothing to address the immediate problem of the forthcoming campaign.

There was no doubt ERC's European Cup would proceed, with or without Toulouse, Begles-Bordeaux, Cardiff and Swansea, all of whom have qualified; the French have umpteen powerful clubs with whom they could make up the numbers while the Welsh would simply call in Neath and Llanelli to fill any gaps left in their contingent. There was still a debate over sponsorship and broadcasting revenue, however. Heineken were by no means certain to support a devalued tournament and significantly, BSkyB refused to confirm whether or not they would televise even the most attractive matches.

The receivers called into manage the financial affairs Bristol will be presented with a rescue package today by John Burke, the chief executive of Bristol & West plc, the club's main sponsor. He is heading a group that includes at least two other local businessmen. The group plan to use the facilities offered earlier in the week by Scott Davidson, the executive chairman at Bristol City Football Club.