The vicious turf war over the future of European club competition reached a delicate stage when the rugby establishment, desperate in their desire to preserve the threatened Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup tournaments, finally agreed to reorganise the qualification system and the financial distribution framework along the lines demanded by the English and French clubs more than a year ago. Unfortunately for the signatories to the new deal, their belated shift in position was not nearly radical enough to secure a breakthrough.
Two days of talks in Dublin concluded with claims of progress by representatives of the major European governing bodies, including a three-man delegation from Twickenham: the Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie, the chairman Bill Beaumont and the operations director Rob Andrew. The discussions were chaired by the Canadian lawyer Graeme Mew, called in last month as a mediator in the dispute. It was not much of a mediation, however, for one side in the argument – the English and French clubs, who are quitting the existing competitions at the end of the season to launch their own Rugby Champions Cup tournament, and the four Welsh regional sides, who declared their support for the rebel venture earlier this week – did not attend. What is more, they do not intend to turn up for next Friday's follow-up meeting, either.
While the governing bodies agreed with the Anglo-French axis that next season's elite competition should have 20 teams rather than 24, that there should be a play-off element and that all monies should be split equally, there was no movement on the vexed questions of broadcasting rights and governance.
"We've been very clear on both of those issues," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, the English clubs' umbrella organisation. "We've stated that any European games involving English clubs will be screened by BT Sport [the current European deal, signed without the support of the Premiership contingent, is with Sky Sports] and that these new competitions must be run largely by the leagues.
"What I find slightly unusual in the communication from Dublin is that it deals with only a part of the issue. We're continuing with our implementation of the Rugby Champions Cup, which now has 30 leading teams committed to it. Whether the other eight teams [the four Irish provinces, the two Scottish professional sides and the Italian pair of Treviso and Zebre] come on board remains to be seen."
McCafferty reiterated that neither the English nor the French clubs had any intention of participating in a competition run by the current Heineken Cup organisers, European Rugby Cup. The chairman Jean-Pierre Lux and the chief executive Derek McGrath attended the Dublin talks and signed the communique.
Meanwhile, three members of the England squad – the Bath centre Kyle Eastmond, his second-row clubmate Dave Attwood and the Gloucester centre Freddie Burns – will play in tonight's West Country league derby at the Recreation Ground.