Anything could happen come Heineken Cup final day at Twickenham in mid-May - an all-English contest, an all-French affair, an all-Irish set-to. And next season? Nothing could happen. Zilch, zero, zip. Jean-Pierre Lux, the chairman of the body charged with running the most popular club tournament in the world game, admitted yesterday there was no guarantee of a competition taking place in 2007-08 if the French make good their threat to stage a one-year boycott.
"I cannot be confident that the French clubs will change their position, although we will make every effort at our meeting next week to make progress on this issue," the former Test centre from Tyrosse said, before a semi-final draw that gave the winners of the Biarritz-Northampton quarter-final home advantage over Wasps or Leinster and Leicester or Stade Français a similar head start over the Llanelli Scarlets or Munster.
"Also, I cannot tell you if the tournament will go ahead at all if the boycott takes place. This will be a decision for the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd. There is a lot of talking to do, and I very much hope we can reach an agreement and run a tournament with a full complement of teams. It is not for me to promise it will happen, though.
"I understand all the problems and I know the things that concern Serge Blanco [president of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and the key figure in the current dispute]. I also know that if the tournament fails to take place, the future will be very difficult in terms of our relationship with our sponsors and broadcasting partners."
Privately, Lux believes there is scope for some movement by his countrymen, especially if the English clubs reach a deal with the Rugby Football Union. Blanco is concerned that next season's fixture logjam, created by the World Cup in September and October, casts too great a shadow over the French domestic championship, which is underwritten by some €35m (£23m) of television money. The broadcasters are belly-aching about being bottom of the pile and have forced the president into a corner.
But he is also worried that any move to franchise clubs in England, rather than leave them wholly independent of the Twickenham grandees, would leave the French isolated. Until there are clear signs of an acceptable outcome to the political upheavals on this side of the Channel, Blanco is reluctant to commit the Tricolores to the Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup.
England's preparations for the Six Nations Championship, which begins with the Calcutta Cup match with Scotland on Saturday week, were hampered by injuries yesterday. Two experienced backs from Sale, Mark Cueto and Jason Robinson, were sent home from Twickenham after failing to recover from respective calf and neck problems. Paul Sackey, the Wasps wing, found himself making a similar trip after turning up with a damaged knee.
The Leicester lock Louis Deacon, Sale flanker Magnus Lund and captain, Phil Vickery of Wasps, did not train and the Bristol scrum-half Shaun Perry, Northampton hooker Steve Thompson and Leicester prop Julian White made limited contributions.
Memories of last autumn, when squad sessions at Loughborough University were undermined by dozens of injuries, were hard to avoid, although Brian Ashton, working towards his debut as England's head coach, did not call for replacements.
As things stand, the three players sent back to their clubs are the most serious concerns in the build-up to the meeting with the Scots. If Robinson and Sackey, early favourites to occupy the wing positions, fail to make progress over the next 72 hours, Ashton will be in the strange position of having his first strategic rethink before his first match.
* The Ulster fan allegedly assaulted by the Toulouse lock Trevor Brennan has denied provoking the player by insulting his mother. Patrick Bamford has "categorically" denied taunting Brennan and claims to have suffered a suspected fractured skull in the incident. "I cannot accept that any circumstances can justify his violence," he said in a statement released yesterday. Brennan, a former Ireland international, faces a lengthy suspension and possible heavy fine following the incident, which occurred during Sunday's Heineken Cup match at Stade Ernest Wallon.
Biarritz or Northampton v Wasps or Leinster
Leicester or Stade Français v Scarlets or Munster
Quarter-finals: 30 Mar-1 April; semi-finals: 20-22 April.Reuse content