It was not expected to be much of a launch under the circumstances – more reminiscent of a soggy rocket on Bonfire Night than an Apollo moon shot – but at least there was some certainty on offer when a beleaguered band of Heineken Cup organisers gathered in Paris on Monday to drum up some interest in this season’s tournament. We now know for sure that Jamie Roberts, the most effective inside centre in the European game, will miss the whole of Wales’ forthcoming autumn international programme.
Roberts, so influential a midfielder that he was fast-tracked into the Lions Test side for the decisive final meeting with Australia in July despite an obvious lack of match practice, picked up a serious ankle injury while playing for his new team, Racing Metro, against Perpignan in a French Top 14 match a little over a fortnight ago. He has since had surgery and according to senior figures at the Parisian club, he will not play again until late November.
There is therefore no prospect of him facing South Africa, Argentina or Tonga, and as Racing do not have to release him for the final Wales Test of the year, against the Wallabies on 30 November, because the fixture falls outside the official international window, he can kiss goodbye to that one, too.
Two Scarlets players are candidates to the fill the gap: the outside centre Jonathan Davies, who performed the No 12 role in the first two Lions Tests and left Australia with his reputation significantly enhanced, and Scott Williams. It is also possible that Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, will take a close look at one of his “lost sons” – Gavin Henson, now back on the beat with Bath.
Did a similar degree of conviction emerge on the vexed topic of the Heineken Cup, which the rebellious English and French clubs insist will cease to exist in its current form at the end of this last, valedictory campaign? Of course not. The only thing provided by those in the thick of the argument yesterday was another deluge of bile.
Jean-Pierre Lux, chairman of the European Rugby Cup organising body – a body with which the Premiership and Top 14 clubs have no intention of negotiating – accused the rebels of “lacking respect”, adding: “The French clubs shouldn’t become the pets of the English clubs.” Lux then laid into the Premiership contingent, claiming they had “refused to engage” with those attempting to reach a solution. “This impasse is essentially because Premiership Rugby wants to renege on a binding commercial deal [with Sky Sports] in favour of a questionable TV contract with BT,” he went on.
It was an intriguing use of language. Whatever the motives of the Premiership clubs in bringing down the curtain on the current European competitions, no one in authority has seriously questioned their agreement with, or commitment to, their new broadcasters. The deal is worth £152m, the new sports channels are up and running and the latest figures tell us that the television audience for club rugby in England has increased by 130 per cent. A chimera, it is not.
Meanwhile, London Irish have signed the long-serving Wales lock Ian Gough, capped 64 times – an important move for a club running one of the smallest squads in the Premiership and already struggling with a heavy body-count. “He is a proven Test forward and has been exceptional at the set piece and the breakdown throughout his career,” said the Exiles rugby director, Brian Smith. “His presence and influence around the training ground will be massive.”
Gough, who will be 37 in November, parted company with the Swansea-based Ospreys earlier this month.