Chris Hewett reports on the latest upheavals in a volatile sporting landscape.
The money men are running out of patience and revolution is in the air. Unless there is a drastic about-face by the governing bodies charged with running English and Continental club competitions, some of the most influential financiers in the game will turn their backs on the Heineken Cup, European Conference and, it is feared in some quarters, press for the creation of a closed shop for the professional elite.
Representatives of the vast majority of England's biggest clubs go into emergency session tomorrow armed with a crisis agenda and a raft of uncompromising ideas aimed at setting the shambolic and money-leaking world of pro rugby to rights. Among the more extreme suggestions on the table will be a Heineken Cup boycott, the creation of a new Anglo-French tournament and a move to block Premiership promotion and relegation for a five-year period.
The owners will demand that the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the body set up to administer the two cross-border tournaments, tears up next season's fixture schedule, which effectively shuts down the Allied Dunbar Premiership for six long and expensive weeks. "The Premiership must take precedence over everything bar full international matches, not play second fiddle to Europe," said one club insider yesterday.
"There is a massive amount of frustration and many of us want out; we have delegates on ERC but they are fighting a losing battle against the Welsh, Scots and Irish. You can't run a business on the basis of constant interruption and, if we don't get satisfaction, the momentum towards a boycott will be unstoppable. How keen will television be to broadcast a competition with no English presence?"
Bath, who have long identified the Heineken Cup as their top priority and face the holders, Brive, in this season's final on 31 January, will almost certainly argue against a boycott but the West Countrymen will inevitably find themselves in a minority, possibly of one.
Some clubs, notably Richmond and Gloucester, are pushing for European business to be conducted in midweek, but others, including Northampton, disagree.
"It's a physical impossibility for players to turn out three times in eight days," Ian McGeechan, the director of rugby at Franklins Gardens, said. "They don't do it in American football, which is the closest parallel in terms of intensity. They'd squeeze another 10 games out of their guys if they possibly could - the Americans are the most professional people in the world when it comes to organising sport - but they know they can't do it. Midweek is a non-starter in my book."
While the clubs are ready and willing to engage in a trial of strength with ERC, they run the risk of opening up a second front with the Rugby Football Union if they attempt to turn the Premiership into a closed shop. Cliff Brittle, the RFU chairman who stood for election on a grass-roots platform, would have to fight any such move tooth and nail or lose all credibility.
However, Sir John Hall, the hard-line multi-millionaire behind Newcastle, and like-minded colleagues, have long favoured a closed shop, knowing full well that it would lead to an irreparable split with the RFU and give them the freedom to pursue an independent future. Several owners have privately accused Brittle of playing a waiting game in the hope that the investors will lose patience and pull out of the game altogether.
Meanwhile, the relatively quiet waters of the Tetley's Bitter Cup produced a ripple of intriguing fifth-round ties yesterday. Four of the last eight matches are likely to be all- Premiership affairs, including a heavyweight bout between Saracens and Leicester - always assuming that the title contenders win their postponed fourth-round games at Blackheath and Coventry respectively.
At least one quarter-final place will be filled by a non-elite club - the winners of the postponed match between West Hartlepool and Wakefield will play either Rugby or Reading in round five - while Northampton have home advantage over Gloucester in the one guaranteed top-flight collision.
TETLEY'S BITTER CUP Fifth-round draw: West Hartlepool or Wakefield v Rugby or Reading; Northampton v Gloucester; London Scottish or Bath v Richmond; Worcester or Bristol v Newcastle; Wasps v Fylde; Blackheath or Saracens v Coventry or Leicester; London Irish v Rotherham; Moseley or Sale v Newbury. (Ties to be played on 24 and 25 January).Reuse content