Rugby union: Irish join attack on league proposal

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The Independent Online
A NEW ERA of political blood-letting is likely to engulf British and European rugby this weekend when Tom Walkinshaw's audacious plan for an pounds 85m "super league" involving teams from England, Scotland and Wales is rejected out of hand by a majority of delegates on the Six Nations Committee, the body charged with sanctioning all cross-border competitions in this most turbulent neck of the union landscape. The Irish, in particular, are determined to block Walkinshaw's blueprint for a season-long, 16-team tournament, claiming it would undermine the pre-eminent status of the Heineken Cup.

They will be backed by the French, who have already expressed deep reservations about the knock-on effects of any competition embracing the British mainland. "The attitude of certain English clubs surprises me," said Jean-Pierre Lux, the chairman of European Rugby Cup Ltd, this week. "I thought we were in the midst of putting together something stable for European club rugby, so it disappoints me that a competition is being suggested that would weaken the raison d'etre of the Heineken Cup. Tom Walkinshaw was one of the initiators of the Paris Agreement" - the deal struck last spring that ended the English clubs' boycott of European rugby - "but it seems to me that he is now thinking only of the commercial aspect of the English game."

The Six Nations delegates were gathering in Rome this evening for a gala dinner, organised to celebrate Italy's historic participation in this season's international championship. They had been looking forward to a peaceful, convivial stay in the Eternal City, but Walkinshaw's decision to drive his proposal forward by going public last week put the committee on a crisis footing. While Walkinshaw, who owns 70 per cent of the Allied Dunbar Premiership-topping Gloucester club, was negotiating with two of the Rugby Football Union's biggest hitters, the chairman Brian Baister and the chief executive Francis Baron, in Manchester yesterday, other power-brokers were mobilising against him.

Sources in Ireland insisted that the Walkinshaw plan was a non-starter, even though all 12 English Premiership clubs have backed it and three leading Welsh sides - Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli - have signed memorandums of understanding with the full knowledge of their union. If any new competitive structure is to be put in place, the Irish argue, it should be an expanded Heineken Cup or a Celtic league. Heineken, which has just agreed a pounds 20m sponsorship deal with ERC, is known to be seriously concerned at the possible impact of a Walkinshaw-style super league on their own competition. Indeed, the money was invested money only after Heineken received assurances that there would be no British league-style initiative.

Walkinshaw said last week that the Heineken Cup would remain the elite competition for European clubs - or, in Ireland's case, provinces. However, any move to expand the continental fixture list would fly directly in the face of his own top-heavy structure and render it unmanageable. Some Six Nations delegates want the Rugby Football Union to take the bull by the horns by entering up to eight English teams in a bigger, more time- consuming European tournament - a move that would force the club owners to either break away from Twickenham or walk away from rugby altogether.

Back in the innocent world of rugby as it is played on the pitch, rather than in the boardroom, Clive Woodward announced yesterday that the 30 England players who finished the World Cup campaign in October would re- gather in Bagshot on Monday to discuss the forthcoming Six Nations internationals. Mike Tindall, the Bath centre who replaced Jeremy Guscott before the calamitous quarter-final with South Africa in Paris, will therefore be in attendance, as will several players who have yet to resume their club careers - the Saracens wing Dan Luger and the Leicester prop Darren Garforth among them.

Northampton will give one of their own injury-plagued Test regulars, the Argentinian front-rower Federico Mendez, his first start of the season in tomorrow night's important Heineken Cup match with Edinburgh Reivers at Myreside.

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