Corridors of uncertainty cast a shadow

As Europe's premier club event prepares for kick-off problems mount over international calendar
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The Independent Online

The game, most conspicuously in England, has been enjoying the reflected glory of a memorable World Cup. Next week sees the start of another tournament with a hallmark, the Heineken Cup, European rugby's answer to the Champions' League. Scratch the highly polished surface, however, and you find an image of men in blazers engaged in a familiar activity - another round of backstabbing.

The game, most conspicuously in England, has been enjoying the reflected glory of a memorable World Cup. Next week sees the start of another tournament with a hallmark, the Heineken Cup, European rugby's answer to the Champions' League. Scratch the highly polished surface, however, and you find an image of men in blazers engaged in a familiar activity - another round of backstabbing.

The launch of the Heineken at Edinburgh Castle last week was overshadowed by the spectre of what is described as the global season, the International Rugby Board's vision of the future. A dream scenario would see the blocking-off of the three component parts: domestic leagues, European competition and internationals. So the Zurich Premiership, for example, would end in February and next up would be the Heineken Cup, followed by the Six Nations' Championship.

Outside the national unions, the IRB do not appear to have consulted the other interested parties. European Rugby Cup Ltd have their offices at Huguenot House (what the French Protestants have to do with it is a good question) on St Stephen's Green in Dublin. Their neighbours, albeit on a different floor, are the IRB. "When it comes to communication it is a building without stairs," Jean-Pierre Lux, chairman of the ERC, said. Presumably they don't talk to each other in the lift.

Lux is chairman of a board of directors that includes Francis Baron, chief executive of the RFU, and Howard Thomas of Premier Rugby. They are England's representatives, yet very often they cannot agree on what day it is. In response to the continued demand for a structured season, Baron is not averse to moving the Six Nations to April and May, but French and English clubs are unlikely to offer their support. "We would need to be persuaded that a Premiership beginning in September and ending in May is a bad thing," Thomas said. "The season works for us as it stands."

Thomas, chief executive of Premier Rugby, does not need persuading that a couple of forthcoming international matches are not so much bad as unplayable. The autumn programme begins with Scotland against Australia at Murrayfield on 6 November, which to Thomas is as explosive as the 5th. "The date does not fall inside the accepted international window and we have sponsors, broadcasters and supporters to think about," Thomas said. "As the IRB have decided this fixture is not covered by the regulation on player release, it is our view that release should not take place." If that is the case Matt Williams, the Australian who coaches Scotland, would have to tackle the Wallabies without at least half-a-dozen players who, despite the Fortress Scotland policy, earn their living by playing for English clubs.

"It's a disgrace," Williams said. "English clubs not releasing their players for a match celebrating the opening of the Scottish Parliament - do the people of Scotland need me to comment? I'll leave every Scot to draw their own conclusions. I find it sad that there are fine young men who will be denied an international cap and the chance to play at Murrayfield against one of the best teams in the world." Williams may have overplayed his hand in referring to the new Scottish Parliament, a building which was long delayed and 10 times over budget.

Then there is the match between the Barbarians and the All Blacks at Twickenham on 4 December, which clashes with the Heineken Cup, including the Northampton-Toulouse sell-out at Franklin's Gardens. The IRB and the RFU see the Barbarians fixture, which is expected to attract a crowd of 70,000, as a window of opportunity. Thomas sees it as a pane in the backside. "There is no doubt the clubs are at odds with the authorities over this," Thomas said. "There is too much international rugby. It is out of control and harming the professional game below it. This is the biggest issue facing the sport."

We have been here before. Last year the IRB tried to stage a match between the northern and southern hemispheres at Twickenham, primarily to raise funds for the cash-strapped Pacific Islanders, but had to abandon the project when it became clear that the clubs were playing hard-ball over the release of players.

If they can't agree on a single fixture, the chances of the disparate parties finding common ground on a global season seem remote. "I know the IRB consider the national unions the principal stakeholders," Derek McGrath, chief executive of the ERC, said, "but we're disappointed at not being involved in the discussions." It sounds as if there are too many chief executives and not enough Indians.

It is against this background that the Heineken Cup celebrates its 10th anniversary with a new slogan, "Driving European Rugby Forward", and a new co-sponsor in Fiat, although beer and motor cars make unlikely bedfellows.

The tournament, with 24 teams in six pools, starts on Friday, when Ulster play Cardiff in Belfast, Llanelli host Toulouse at Stradey Park and Edinburgh travel to Perpignan. In the Celtic League, Ulster have discovered Ravenhill is no longer a fortress, Llanelli, for a variety of reasons, are no longer red in tooth and claw, and Edinburgh will be lucky to return from France with anything to declare.

The Scots have an extra incentive this season in that the final, scheduled for the penultimate weekend in May, is at Murrayfield. Edinburgh have signed a centre named Ben MacDougall, who sounds like a Highlander until you discover he's an Australian who has been playing rugby league. He must be useful. They have given him a contract to May 2007.

Gloucester, Harlequins and the Neath-Swansea Ospreys have tough assignments at Stade Français, Munster and Castres on Saturday. Of the three, the Neath-Swansea combination could spring the biggest surprise. Wasps, the holders, play Biarritz at High Wycombe next Sunday. Come on you Hugueneots.

Who, where, when of the Heineken Cup

Pool 1

Wasps, Calvisano, Biarritz, Leicester

Pool 2

Benetton Treviso, Leinster, Bath, Bourgoin

Pool 3

Llanelli Scarlets, Glasgow, Northampton, Toulouse

Pool 4

Munster, Neath-Swansea Ospreys, Castres, Harlequins

Pool 5

Edinburgh, Perpignan, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Newcastle

Pool 6

Stade Français, Ulster, Cardiff Blues, Gloucester

First-round fixtures

Friday: Llanelli v Toulouse (7.30pm)

Ulster v Cardiff (7.30)

Perpignan v Edinburgh (8.30)

Saturday: N-G Dragons v Newcastle (1.0)

Bath v Bourgoin (2.15)

Leicester v Calvisano (2.45)

Treviso v Leinster (2.30)

Stade Français v Gloucester (4.0)

Munster v Harlequins (5.15)

Castres v Neath-Swansea Opsreys (6.30)

Sunday: Glasgow v Northampton (1.0)

Wasps v Biarritz (3.0)

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