Breakaway clubs scramble for solutions: English sides under pressure to provide a schedule worthy of replacing the Heineken Cup
One-off matches or mini-tournaments with overseas "guest" teams to augment the domestic Aviva Premiership season are being considered by English clubs for next season, as they come under pressure from supporters and broadcasters to provide a schedule worthy of replacing the Heineken Cup.
The Premiership leaders, Saracens, have proposed playing South Africa's Natal Sharks next month, to be televised by BT Sport, and further one-offs, short round-robins and a world sevens tournament are seen as more realistic in the short term than transforming the LV Cup into an Anglo-Welsh League or setting up a new Anglo-South African competition.
"Anything is possible" is the defiant message from Premiership Rugby Ltd (PRL), the clubs' umbrella company including, still, a proper European competition involving the English if the troublesome issues of governance and commercial control can ever be resolved. Anything, that is, apart from continuing with the Dublin-based, European Rugby Cup Ltd – it is understood the BT contract precludes PRL from working with the current ERC.
"We've got financial models for what we see to be our alternatives," said Quentin Smith, the PRL chairman. "We've been very careful to ensure mature decisions and not just commercial and short-term decisions, and we have unanimous backing from our clubs. There may be some financial pain and some uncertainty next season but that's part of our risk analysis."
Additional double-headers or new triple-header Premiership matches at big stadiums were discussed at last Thursday's PRL emergency meeting but at least one club complained not every club was in line for more home matches to replace the nine missing European weekends. "The pressure is on us to provide events of quality and integrity, not just mickey-mouse replacement matches," Smith admitted.
"We could play individual matches or triple headers with teams from other jurisdictions; it could be Bath against Toulouse, a huge match like that. Or it could be Leinster, Ospreys and Wasps over a weekend but that is no more than an idea off the top of the head, we don't want to start hares running. We really want to get it right."
The fact remains, England's players preparing for a home World Cup in autumn 2015 face a season in 2014-15 mainly comprising domestic league action. Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, said recently, the Aviva Premiership is the best testing ground, as it pits his England players head to head, but he conceded the best Heineken Cup games are a step up in class.
Lancaster's employers at the Rugby Football Union will end a long public silence at Twickenham on Tuesday when the chief executive Ian Ritchie and chairman Bill Beaumont meet the media and attempt to allay fears the row might undermine the England team and the nation hosting a happy World Cup in less than two years.
In Wales, the regions are keen on an Anglo-Welsh or British League with the English clubs, whereas the Welsh Rugby Union are loyal to their Irish, Scottish and Italian partners in the Pro 12 and Heineken Cup.
The battle will step up tomorrow week when the Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton will be party to a players' association executive meeting with the Welsh Rugby Union. The regions have alleged that senior WRU coaching figures twice advised the players last month not to sign new regional contracts. The regions are also angry that the £1 million offered by the WRU to assist with keeping Warburton and six other stars (Leigh Halfpenny, Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Scott Williams, Rhys Priestland and Toby Faletau) in Wales is conditional on the regions committing to the existing competitions, and only payable if all seven stay put.
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