Three-tier European event on table as RFU enters fight
Three rounds into the Premiership campaign, rugby folk are already talking feverishly about something else – namely, the future of the Heineken Cup. England's clubs have only themselves to blame: a game-changing £152m deal with a new broadcaster, linked to plans to flatten the entire edifice of European club rugby and rebuild it to their own design whatever the rest of the continent might say, was always likely to distract attention from this weekend's helping of thud and blunder.
While those alarmed by the Premiership's unilateral selling of television rights to the communications giant BT continued to accuse them of adopting a beggar-thy-neighbour strategy for their own ends, the general shape of the English plan for European competition began to emerge. Supported by financial resources way beyond anything previously generated by the Heineken Cup, they will table a proposal for a three-tier cross-border format, with only the top six teams from each of the major northern hemisphere leagues – the Premiership, the Celtic-Italian Pro 12 and the French Top 14 – guaranteed entry to the elite tournament. The third tier will eventually include teams from developing rugby nations in southern and eastern Europe, with a promotion mechanism built in.
In return, the English will require backing for their new broadcasting deal, together with the creation of a new administrative structure for European competition – one capable of maximising commercial opportunities that, in their view, have slipped through the fingers of the current Dublin-based set-up. If that seems a lot to ask, they are confident that when the numbers are tabled at a Heineken Cup board meeting next week, those who have already closed their eyes to the plan will suddenly open them.
They do, however, expect this to be a "dirty war", as one senior member of the English club movement put it. Premier Rugby, the umbrella organisation representing the top-flight professional clubs, felt the need yesterday to make a public statement of support for their chief executive, Mark McCafferty, who negotiated the new television deal. This followed reports that McCafferty did not have the unequivocal backing of all the leading clubs and although the idea that he played a solo hand with BT and then presented the agreement as a fait accompli is laughable, the decision to issue the statement underlined the sensitivity of the situation.
Meanwhile, the former European champions Wasps finally concluded their lengthy search for new owners by agreeing terms with a consortium headed by Ken Moss, a former player.
They now stand alone, having negotiated full separation from the previous owner Steve Hayes and his Wycombe Wanderers set-up, although they will continue to play at the football club's Adams Park ground until they find themselves a home of their own – a long-term priority for the new board, which will feature both Moss and the existing chairman Mark Rigby.
Wasps have been crying out for this for several seasons. It will take time, but the tarnished Londoners finally have a chance of reclaiming some of their long-lost lustre.
Harlequins v Sale
Harlequins restore Danny Care at half-back and make two changes up front, promoting Charlie Matthews to a starting berth at lock and reinstalling Nick Easter at No 8. Sale travel with box-office talent in Danny Cipriani and Richie Gray. Tom Brady plays wing instead of the injured Will Addison.
London Welsh v Exeter
Nick Scott, one of several ex-Bath players in the Exiles' squad, replaces Joe Ajuwa at wing for a game the newcomers have earmarked as a possible win. Exeter are in good shape, though, and the selection of the substantial Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki suggests they are also in the mood.
Saracens v Leicester
Owen Farrell replaces Charlie Hodgson at outside-half as Saracens set up camp at Wembley for the first time this season. There are also promotions for James Short, Neil de Kock, Carlos Nieto and Jackson Wray. The Tigers, currently on maximum points, start with Logovi'i Mulipola and Dan Cole at prop.
Wasps v London Irish
Stephen Jones, one of the finest outside-halves of his generation, makes a first start for Wasps at the ripe old age of 34, having left Wales at the end of last season. There is also a start for the imported Springbok back-rower Ashley Johnson against an unchanged London Irish.
Worcester v Gloucester
Gloucester start without Freddie Burns, architect of last weekend's win at London Irish. Burns has ankle problems and, while he is fit enough for bench duty, the West Countrymen are playing safe by shifting Billy Twelvetrees inside and recalling Mike Tindall at centre. Nikki Walker makes his debut for Worcester.
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