French boycott sparks Heineken Cup crisis

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The 12 chairmen of England's top-flight professional teams will meet on Monday to discuss their response to the French boycott of next season's Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup tournaments, a decision that has driven the northern hemisphere game back into crisis territory. Events across the Channel proved conclusively that rugby's dirty politics is not confined to the boardroom at Twickenham, although it is inevitable that the Premiership clubs will find themselves embroiled in this latest dispute.

After weeks of heavy hints and veiled threats, the top 14 teams in France, from Stade Français in Paris to Biarritz in the far south-west, bit the bullet yesterday and confirmed their intention to walk away from European competition once this season's business in completed.

The announcement was carefully timed and struck a bitter chord: at the weekend, the élite Heineken Cup pool stage reaches its climax with four outstanding matches that will reinforce the competition's reputation as the most captivating annual event in the world game.

Nine seasons ago, the English clubs refused to participate in Europe, even though Bath had won the 1998 title and were desperate to defend it. They were supported by two rebel Welsh teams, Cardiff and Swansea, but not by the French, who entered Toulouse, Stade Français, Perpignan, Bègles-Bordeaux and Colomiers, who reached the final of a tournament that went ahead unsponsored and might have been discredited but for a compelling performance from Ulster, the eventual champions.

Since then, however, the English and French clubs have formed a close political alliance and frequently cause ructions on the 12-man board of European Rugby Cup Ltd with their demands for changes to voting and shareholding structures and a greater say in the commercial expansion of the two tournaments.

Some of these issues were addressed in the wake of the English boycott, but the so-called Paris Accord is now in its final months. The old arguments about who runs what, why they run it and for whose benefit have been reignited with a vengeance over the last year, and with no settlement in sight, the French have taken it upon themselves to bring matters to a head.

Serge Blanco, the great full-back and former Tricolore captain who holds the presidency of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, is at the forefront of the boycott. Blanco is deeply concerned that a major broadcasting deal underpinning next season's French domestic championship is being threatened by the fixture-scheduling problems caused by this autumn's World Cup, which will be held, ironically enough, in his own country. He also believes that the current friction in England between the Rugby Football Union and the Premiership clubs makes the prospect of a new Heineken Cup accord too remote for comfort.

Yesterday, Blanco accused the RFU of reneging on an agreement to support the English clubs' demand for greater control of the European tournaments. This was sharply rebuffed by Twickenham. "We wouldn't dream of commenting on the internal matters of another union," said Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the RFU. "It surprises me that the French feel able to comment on internal matters in England."

There was, however, an eerie silence from the Premiership clubs. If they so choose, they could join the French in paralysing the current ERC board and force it to disband. This would leave a vacuum at the heart of the professional game in Europe - one that the governing body of world rugby, the International Board, would feel driven to fill, thereby widening the conflict.

Meanwhile, England must wait until next month to discover the identity of their fourth and final World Cup pool opponents. Tonga, overwhelming favourites to progress through the repêchage tournament, will play Korea in New Zealand on 10 February. Assuming the Pacific islanders win, they will join South Africa, Samoa and the United States in the reigning champions' group.