This season's Heineken Cup, staggering towards annihilation through a thick mist of political brinksmanship, will have its Anglo-Welsh launch in Cardiff on Monday. By then, someone may have worked out exactly what was meant by three separate, but inextricably linked statements by the Celtic unions that pretended to say something significant without actually saying very much at all.
The Irish, Scottish and Welsh governing bodies announced that they would not allow their professional teams, 10 of them in total, to participate in any new competition – they were thinking particularly of the proposed Rugby Champions Cup, currently being planned by clubs from the English Premiership and the French Top 14 – that did not meet with their approval, or with that of the International Rugby Board.
Intriguingly, there was no mention of the unions defending the position of European Rugby Cup, the body charged with administering the Heineken Cup and its second-tier stablemate, the Amlin Challenge Cup. This omission strengthened the impression that ERC, slow-moving to the point of immobility but now fighting for its existence, will be offered up as a sacrificial lamb. The English and French clubs have made it abundantly clear that their relationship with ERC is at an end. The Celtic unions may have to reach a similar decision in order to bring this crisis to an end.
Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premier Rugby and the lead negotiator for the English clubs, said that teams from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy had shown keen interest in joining the new tournament. "Our firm belief is that they want to participate," he said. "They want a strong, competitive European competition, as do we all, and they're not much interested in the politics of it.
"I know some people are trying to characterise this issue as a fight for control of the sport, as a threat to the entire governance structure of rugby union, but we don't see it in that way. What we want is to organise and run an ambitious, commercially successful competition that will help the clubs, provinces and regions across Europe generate the money they need to prosper. That's the relevant issue. Everything else is irrelevant."
McCafferty words were echoed by Allan Robson, the chief executive of Northampton, one of the most successful clubs in England, both commercially and competitively. "The simple fact," Robson said, "is that while club rugby has grown dramatically in England and France over the last 20 years, the Heineken Cup – and, more importantly, the underlying management of the competition, its finances and structures – have not adapted to the changes. No one wanted this brinksmanship, but ERC have prevaricated and pontificated and tried to kick our proposals into the long grass."
Northampton will field two of their big-name summer signings, the Wales wing George North and the England loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero, in tonight's Premiership game with Sale at Franklin's Gardens. The visitors will start with Danny Cipriani, back in favour after a big points haul against Wasps a week ago, at outside-half.