Heineken Cup talks hit critical juncture
English and French clubs will push for slimmed-down format at board meeting
The men who will decide the future of the Heineken Cup, perhaps the biggest political football in world rugby as well as the biggest club tournament, are unlikely to be any closer to agreement at the close of today's important board meeting in London, but at least they will have a clear idea of exactly how far they are away. Talks are expected to be even more fraught than usual as the Anglo-French axis squares up to the Celtic bloc, but some delegates believe this may prove the darkest hour before dawn.
Two proposals for a revamped competition, one tabled by each side, will be discussed, and almost certainly rejected. Ireland, Scotland and Wales, supported by Italy, are pressing for an enlarged 32-team format – an idea that has gained no traction in England or France, where those representing the interests of clubs in the Premiership and Top 14 leagues dismiss it as unwieldy, unworkable and something that runs counter to the Heineken Cup's status as an elite tournament.
Equally, the Anglo-French proposal for a more concentrated 20-team competition, a cut of four from the current number, is falling on profoundly deaf ears in the Celtic corner, where negotiators see no advantage in sanctioning a reduction in their own numbers. On the basis that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, particularly at this time of year, there is no obvious prospect of Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales giving up 10 guaranteed Heineken Cup places and accepting six instead.
But something will have to give sooner or later: the English and French teams have served notice of their intention to walk away from the tournament at the end of next season, and if there is no agreement, there will be no Heineken Cup.
"We are at a delicate stage," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby and the lead negotiator on behalf of the English clubs. "There is no definite timetable, but we are getting to the point where we need to see some progress because the clock cannot be allowed to run down continually.
"We've already spent six months on this and when next season begins, clubs need to know exactly what they're trying to qualify for.
"Together with the French, we're keen to make the case for a strengthening of both the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup [the second-tier equivalent of football's Europa League]. Two 20-team competitions, underpinned by a third tournament aimed at developing rugby nations like Russia and Georgia, Spain and Portugal… we believe very strongly in this and we'll push hard for it."
Meanwhile London Irish issued a grim injury bulletin today. They expect to be without Tomas O'Leary, the scrum-half who would have toured South Africa with the Lions in 2009 had he been fit to take his place in the squad, for between four and six months after the Irishman underwent surgery to repair a disc in his lower back. O'Leary has not played since late October.
Priestland a doubt for Lions tour
Rhys Priestland, the Wales fly-half, will miss the Six Nations and is a major doubt for the British and Irish Lions tour of Australia next summer after he underwent keyhole surgery this morning for a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in the Scarlets' game against Exeter at the weekend.
Although the operation was judged a success, Priestland will not play for six months and Andy Walker, the head of medicine at Scarlets, described the injury as "serious".
The Lions head coach, Warren Gatland, will today name his principal support staff for next summer's three-Test series in Australia – a back-room team expected to include two England coaches in Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, together with the Wales attack strategist Rob Howley. The players will not be selected until after the forthcoming Six Nations Championship.
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