New version of European Cup on table

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Heaven knows how they intend to do it in the face of the boycott declared by the leading French clubs and the support shown by their English brethren, but the shareholding governors of the elite Heineken Cup and second-string Challenge Cup tournaments announced yesterday that a European competition would be staged next season. The emphasis was on the indefinite article. The ferocious outbreak of political argy-bargy over the ownership, administration and marketing of the most fought-over rugby product in the world game has claimed its first casualty.

Where there were two, there will now be one, although until delicate discussions with aggrieved sponsors and broadcasters have been completed ­ a series of meetings will take place over the coming weeks ­ there is no guarantee the proposed new tournament will get off the ground. While the shareholders agreed in Dublin yesterday that all six major European unions ­ England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales ­ would be represented in the 2007-08 competition, there was no information on how this might be delivered.

There have been rumours of the Rugby Football Union turning to England's National League One clubs for support. Geoff Cooke, the former England coach who speaks for those clubs, has serious doubts as to whether such a move is practical. The notion of Edinburgh playing Sedgley Park at Murrayfield is almost laughable. The Scots do not get much of a crowd at the best of times. Should they ever play host to an English Second Division side, the paying public would not fill the hot dog stand.

And the French? As their Second Division equivalent, the "Pro 2" teams, are part of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and are at least assumed to be in common cause with the likes of Toulouse and Stade Français, there is little likelihood of them participating unless the French union seduces them with millions of euros.

An unsponsored European Cup went ahead in 1998-99 despite a boycott by the English clubs and two major names in Welsh rugby, Cardiff and Swansea. There was even a second-string competition. But on that occasion, the French saved the main tournament by entering Toulouse, Stade Français, Perpignan, Begles-Bordeaux and Colomiers, while the likes of Caerphilly, Aberavon and Bridgend made up the numbers in the Challenge Cup. This time, there is no obvious way for the tournament organisers to secure a quorum.

Still, there was some optimism. One of the European Rugby Cup board members, the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis, said: "This is a significant step forward. Last week we made contingency plans to ease the financial pain our regions would feel if there were no tournaments. Now they can look forward to a brighter financial picture. There is a clear mandate for a European competition to take place next season and we will work as hard as possible to ensure it is a success."

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