Any last lingering hopes of a thaw in the deep-frozen argument over the future of the Heineken Cup disappeared into the chill winter air last night when the chairmen, principal investors and chief executives of the 14 biggest clubs in England reaffirmed their decision to boycott the tournament next season. They are now seeking at least six weeks’ worth of new fixtures in a bid to fill the gap left by the decision to walk away from one of the world’s most captivating competitions.
There was no clear road ahead for the English clubs following a five-hour meeting in London attended by representatives of all 12 top-flight sides, together with delegates from Bristol and Leeds, who also own a shareholding in Premiership Rugby Ltd having spent much of the professional era in the elite league. One obvious route would be to expand the Premiership by readmitting the two second-tier teams, but there is no guarantee that the governing body at Twickenham would sanction such a move.
Alternatively, there could be a bid to tempt the four cash-strapped and deeply unsettled Welsh regional teams into a cross-border alliance – a move strongly supported by Nigel Wray, the Saracens chairman. But while Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets supported Anglo-French plans for a new pan-European tournament – plans that disintegrated last week when the French clubs bowed to establishment pressure and agreed to play one more “transitional” season of Heineken Cup rugby – it would be a high-risk step into the unknown for them to break links with their own governing body and ride shotgun with the Premiership fraternity.
After yesterday’s meeting, the Premiership Rugby chairman, Quentin Smith, insisted that the 14 clubs in attendance were speaking with one voice in rejecting any return to the Heineken Cup fold. “There were full and frank exchanges, as there always are when people challenge each other on serious issues, but by the conclusion of the discussion there was unanimity,” he said. “We believe we are rather unusual as far as this long process is concerned, in that we have been consistent in our view. That view is that we have no future in European competition as it is currently run.
“If I’m honest, we’re growing a little tired of all the procrastination, all the filibustering. The French talk of a ‘transitional’ season, but what does that mean? We don’t have the faintest idea, frankly. We understand that they operate in a difficult regulatory environment on the far side of the Channel, but from our point of view we’re not in the business of putting off tough decisions or buying ourselves time. We need to move on.”
Smith was bullish over the prospect of teams outside of England agreeing to play “meaningful fixtures of value” against the Premiership clubs. “Nothing is off the table in terms of what we attempt to put together for next season,” he said, “and we do not intend to continue in a holding pattern. We thought we had a deal with the various governing bodies on our proposed Rugby Champions Cup on 22 October, but for reasons of their own, the French union then decided there was no deal. That’s where we are. I’m confident we will put together a full season of rugby for our supporters. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a booming market of this size?”
He was less confident of anything being salvaged from the Rugby Champions Cup blueprint. “I don’t see any insurmountable obstacle, any roadblock, that prevents the tournament taking place at some point in the future,” he said. “My heart tells me there is still a chance of a sensible agreement that benefits us all. Whether my intellect tells me the same as my heart, I’m not sure.”
Last night’s developments came at the end of a day that saw two more front-line members of the Wales squad, the outside-half Rhys Priestland and the hooker Richard Hibbard, heavily linked with moves to the Premiership next season. If, as widely expected, Priestland agrees terms with Wasps and Hibbard throws in his lot with Gloucester, it will be another savage blow to the impoverished domestic game on the far side of Severn and inevitably lead to accusations that the English have joined the French in pursuing a beggar-thy-neighbour recruitment policy.
Why have the English had enough of the wildly popular Heineken Cup?
Because they believe the current administrators have failed to maximise the tournament’s value. The Premiership clubs wanted greater commercial and organisational control.
What happened to the entente cordial with the French?
That collapsed last week when the top French clubs voted to stay in the Heineken Cup for another season.
Anyone’s guess. The Welsh regions want to stick with the English; the Irish, Italian and Scottish unions are sticking with the status quo; the French seem stuck in a strange world of their own.