If the Heineken Cup's beleaguered administrators thought they were strengthening the position of their ailing tournament by insisting that negotiations between the warring factions were still alive, and suggesting that the top-flight clubs in England and France might pull back from a breakaway by accepting arbitration, they were rudely disabused today.
The clubs were even more militant than they had been at the start of the week, when they confirmed their intention to set up an Anglo-French competition in time for next season.
Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, stated categorically last night that the leading English teams had no intention of playing in any tournament run by European Rugby Cup, the Heineken Cup organising body, after the conclusion of this season's event. "I don't know how many more ways there are to say this," he commented. "Our discussions with ERC are at an end. We are fully committed to setting up a new tournament with our colleagues in France, although as we've always indicated, we'd be more than happy if teams from other nations joined us."
Across the Channel, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby chairman Paul Goze was even more determined to drive the message home. "We're not threatening not to participate in the European Cup – we're saying we will not participate," he stated. "We asked for a revision of the format of the Heineken Cup and some financial redistribution and did everything possible to change things, but without success. Nobody can prevent us from establishing a new competition. The presidents of our Top 14 clubs have all given us their approval, which is why we can stand together on this. The English are on the same wavelength."
The ERC board, which includes Peter Wheeler of Leicester, said on Wednesday that "all parties" had reaffirmed their commitment to continuing discussions on a new European accord, but the English clubs question the accuracy of that assertion. Indeed, it is no longer certain that either Wheeler or the Toulouse president René Bouscatel will attend another meeting.
Meanwhile, Northampton will give the third of their big-name summer signings, the outstanding Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i, a first competitive start in tonight's big Premiership contest with Harlequins at the Stoop. Fotuali'i, recruited from Ospreys during the summer, will line up alongside two Lions Test signings in the Wales wing George North and the England prop Alex Corbisiero.
Injury blows sting Wasps
Wasps have been dealt a double blow just a week into the new season. Winger Tom Varndell ruptured his biceps in training, while back-row forward Rory Pitman suffered ankle ligament damage in an A League game. Both are out for up to four months. Wasps are already without Elliot Daly, James Bailey, James Haskell and Phil Swainston through injury.
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