European Cup will live on, says Sam Warburton amid disputes over future of Heineken Cup
Wales captain confident a solution can be found involving all nations in one competition
Sam Warburton has no clear idea of what the future holds for European rugby – the Wales captain's befuddlement places him in a majority of at least 99 per cent – but he knows this much: if the English and French clubs succeed in forming their own cross-Channel tournament in time for next season, the winners of it will not be able to claim mastery of all they survey.
"Would an Anglo-French competition suck in all the best players from the Celtic countries? I don't think so," the Cardiff Blues flanker remarked as he continued preparations for this weekend's Heineken Cup opener at Exeter. "And could the winners of it really call themselves European champions? No. That would be disrespectful, especially to Irish sides like Leinster and Munster, who have been such giants in the Heineken Cup over the last few years."
Warburton, fully recovered from the hamstring tear that prevented him from leading the British & Irish Lions in their final, triumphant Test of the summer series in Australia, said he was optimistic of a late solution to the boardroom conflict that threatens to sink the world's best club competition after 19 fractious but largely successful seasons. "I find it hard to believe there won't be a European Cup next year involving teams from every country involved in the current one," he said. "I'm quite relaxed about it all."
However, there was an interesting footnote. Warburton said that if there was no way of preventing the Anglo-French split and the three Celtic nations, together with the two professional sides from Italy, were left to play among themselves, the result would be a stronger version of the Pro 12 league. Ironically enough, one of the major English beefs with the Pro 12 as presently constituted is that it offers too many major participants too much of an easy ride. It is a convoluted situation, to be sure.
After a good many reports linking Warburton with a big-money move to France, fuelled by a lack of progress on a new Blues contract driven in part by the financial uncertainty stemming from the European ruckus, the 25-year-old forward reiterated his desire to remain at the Arms Park rather than follow his fellow Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate across the water.
"I can see the positives in going to France and it makes sense for some people," he said. "Jamie is a free spirit and would have gone whatever the money on offer; Dan's fiancée is a French teacher and anyway, he feels he's developing his game over there. But I get looked after at the Blues. The facilities are outstanding and when I look at the quality of the young players coming through here, we'll be contenders for something if we can stick together for two or three years."
The European season begins tonight with three matches in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, including an intriguing meeting between Sale and Biarritz in Salford. The Premiership side will field a serious line-up, although the outside-half Danny Cipriani, outstanding in last week's league victory over Bath, must be content with replacement status. The Basques, on the other hand, are reluctant go full tilt if their selection is anything to go by – a reflection of their parlous position in the domestic Top 14 tournament, where they are already nine points adrift at the bottom and contemplating relegation.
Some French sides have a well-earned reputation for placing European rugby low on their priorities, although Biarritz, twice Heineken Cup finalists, have never been among them. Might the same be said for the odd English club this season? Bath's decision not to register Kyle Eastmond and Dave Attwood certainly raises the question. For the record, rugby director Gary Gold said that as both were in the England squad for the autumn internationals, it was important not to overplay them.
Sadly, the Gloucester full-back Olly Morgan, who won a couple of England caps during Brian Ashton's spell in charge, has been forced to pack it in at 27 after failing to recover from a knee injury.
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