Cup launch ferments row over 'global' restructuring

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The Independent Online

The Heineken Cup, by common consent the outstanding club tournament in world rugby, is no stranger to the high politics of the union game. Rest assured, another row is brewing nicely - one that goes to the very heart of the uncomfortable relationship between the international authorities and the professional club movement in Europe.

The Heineken Cup, by common consent the outstanding club tournament in world rugby, is no stranger to the high politics of the union game, having survived Anglo-Scottish rejection in 1995, a full-scale English boycott in 1998-99 and enough disciplinary scandals to keep an entire legal practice in gainful employment. Rest assured, another row is brewing nicely - one that goes to the very heart of the uncomfortable relationship between the international authorities and the professional club movement in Europe.

As the great and good of European Rugby Cup Ltd launched this season's jamboree in Edinburgh yesterday - the first matches take place on Friday week in Belfast, Llanelli and Perpignan - there were dark mutterings about accelerating moves towards the so-called "global season", early proposals for which include a blocking-off of the sport's three component parts: domestic leagues, European competition and international fixtures. Under such a plan, the English Premiership would end in February, to be followed by the Heineken Cup and a repositioned Six Nations' Championship.

While remaining paragons of diplomacy, senior ERC figures made clear their frustration at the International Rugby Board's refusal to consult them on the issue. "I know the IRB consider the national unions to be the principal stakeholders, but it's fair to say we're disappointed at not being involved in the discussions," conceded Derek McGrath, the chief executive of ERC. "We feel our voice should be heard."

There was a more stinging comment from the organisation's chairman, Jean-Pierre Lux. "We are on the first two floors, the IRB are on the third floor," he said, referring to the Dublin offices shared by the two bodies. "When it comes to communication, it is a building without stairs." Lux predicted the French clubs, an increasingly powerful presence in the northern hemisphere game, would flatly refuse to countenance any fixture list that dared restrict their domestic championship, of which they are fiercely protective, to an autumn-winter slot.

Suspicion of so radical an overhaul of the fixture list is widespread. Ian McGeechan, the Scottish union's director of rugby, described the domestic-European-Test progression as "an easy answer packed with difficulties in practice." He continued: "It's a personal thing, but I do have a problem with it. I'm not convinced you can block off the international season and regularly play three Tests on the bounce, because you'll be pretty close to destroying the players. There are very serious implications here."

Some ERC officials suspect the IRB feels threatened by the rapid development of professional club rugby, under which the English Premiership has established itself as the fastest-growing sporting attraction in the country and the Heineken Cup has pulled in almost five million spectators since its low-key launch nine years ago. They are certainly incandescent at the board's sanctioning of a cash-cow fixture between the Barbarians and the touring All Blacks at Twickenham on 4 December, which clashes directly with prime European matches, including the Northampton-Toulouse game at Franklin's Gardens.

At least there is considerable confidence that this season's final, scheduled for the penultimate weekend of May, will attract a capacity crowd, despite the high-risk policy of playing the match at Murrayfield. The chances of one of the two competing Scottish sides, Edinburgh and Glasgow, making it through to the latter stages of the tournament are virtually zero, but with the Scottish Rugby Union throwing its full weight behind the marketing operation, ERC insists that the decision was made more in expectation than hope.

Twenty-four games will be broadcast live over the first four rounds of matches, an unprecedentedly large number that sits rather uneasily with the minuscule satellite television audience. McGrath also announced that from next season, there would be an open draw for the pool stage, rather than the current matrix system. He then backtracked a little, saying the draw would be made on a basis of "planned randomness". The Heineken Cup reinvented cross-border rugby years ago. Now, it is reinventing the English language.

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