The International Rugby Board have fired a warning shot in the escalating conflict over the future of the European game with its chief executive, Brett Gosper, suggesting the body would not sanction any new Anglo-French club competition.
Any tournament between clubs from different countries requires the blessing not only of the respective home unions but also the IRB and as the 12 Premiership clubs met in London today to discuss options, Gosper cautioned against a competition involving only the English and French sides.
"We don't think that's in the best interests of the game a competition such as that, no," said Gosper. "We don't believe in an Anglo-French competition. We strongly believe it should be a European competition and that's what we would be supporting and throwing our weight behind. We know there are lots of discussions that are happening but we urge all of those parties to get together and find some common ground because we believe it's in the interests of the game to do so.
"We have to ultimately approve any cross-border competition. Firstly each union has to approve it. The FFR [the French federation] has to approve for their clubs to play in a cross-border, the RFU the4 same thing and ultimately for a cross-border competition the IRB has to approve."
The IRB want the Welsh, Irish, Scots and Italian sides to be included in any future competition. However, at a meeting today England's Premiership clubs reaffirmed that they, plus the French clubs, will quit the Heineken Cup at the end of this season and want "immediate action" to put in place their own tournament free from European Rugby Cup Limited, the body that runs the Heineken Cup, from the start of the next campaign – they have invited the Celtic nations and the Italians to join them. The English and French want a tournament with different structural, qualification and financial criteria to the current set-up.
The views expressed by Gosper today indicate the size of the obstacles that still lie ahead of any Anglo-French competition, especially were IRB opposition to harden. If the Premiership and Top 14 clubs decide to go it alone it could lead the sport straight to the nearest courtroom, and the implications of that are severe.
The worst-case scenario would be a split – akin to cricket's Kerry Packer affair – with a competition in opposition to the game's governing body, the IRB. Participating players could face the ultimate sanction of an international ban, although fines for the union, the RFU or the FFR, and the clubs involved are more likely.
The IRB has yet to involve itself in any direct negotiations but Gosper urged the various parties to get together. Yet ERC do not have a meeting scheduled until late next month, and it is by no means certain a Premiership representative will attend. In fact, after last night's meeting of Premiership Rugby, a statement insisted: "The clubs see no purpose in new discussions starting as late as the end of October."
But Gosper was still hopeful. "I would urge all the parties to come together for the negotiations," he said. "They may all have different views but we believe in a European organisation and a European competition and that is our starting point."