The Rugby Football Union is not prepared to go to war with its own top-flight clubs in an effort to save the threatened Heineken Cup, but it is ready to explore every other available option in the search for a peace deal that might protect the tournament from the worst excesses of its own stakeholders. The price of failure will be heavy indeed. "It would open up a Pandora's Box for the game across the world," admitted Ian Ritchie, the Twickenham chief executive. No pressure, then.
Ritchie, as quiet as the proverbial grave on this most complex of disputes in recent months, was anything but silent as he outlined his governing body's position in the light of last week's statement by the 14 biggest clubs in England confirming their decision to boycott all current European competitions from the end of this season. The chief executive tacitly acknowledged that the rival broadcasting claims of Sky Sports and BT Sport were the principal obstacle in the hunt for a lasting agreement and said he would seek to broker an accommodation between those two bitter rivals.
"I'm working on the assumption that some form of resolution must be possible," he said. "If it proves insoluble so be it, but in that case, what will the broadcasters end up getting? I think there is a deal to be done, even now, and I'll flog my guts out in pursuit of it. The first step is to talk to all parties, including the broadcasters. I'm almost at the point of being obsessed by this issue, because it's that important."
In the summer of last year, the existing Heineken Cup board, made up of delegates from the six competing nations and nine different rugby organisations, voted in favour of a contract extension guaranteeing Sky Sports exclusive rights to the tournament. The directors knew at the time that the English and French clubs intended to quit the competition in May 2014, and with the English clubs negotiating their own £152m deal with BT Sport – a contract that prevents them participating in any tournament screened by another broadcaster – the battle lines were drawn.
Should the Premiership teams hold firm to their boycott plans – and Ritchie offered no evidence to suggest they were anything other than deadly serious – the ructions could be enormous. One option for the English teams is to launch a new Anglo-Welsh league with the four professional sides from the far side of the Severn Bridge. This, Ritchie confessed, would leave the sport facing its version of a constitutional crisis. "It would not simply be about the politics of the whole game, but the economics of it, too," he said.
Ritchie made a fierce defence of his union's tactics over the course of the most damaging argument in recent rugby memory, rejecting veiled accusations from other governing bodies that Twickenham had become subservient to its clubs – that the tail was wagging the dog, rather than the other way round.
"That's crackers," he said. "Let's kill this idea that we're in a position to instruct the clubs to do things. We're not, and neither do we want to be. We have a deal with the Premiership that works for us, we want to see a vibrant club scene in England and it's right and proper that we should have a close relationship with them."
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