England’s top-flight clubs already have a name for the tournament they say will fill the gap in the fixture list left by their abandonment of the Heineken Cup and the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup at the end of the season. It will be called the Rugby Champions Cup. More significantly at this stage of the political game, they confirmed yesterday that together with the leading French teams, their partners in rebellion, they would not engage in any mediation process aimed at saving the two existing European competitions.
Enter the French Federation, the governing body of the sport on the far side of the water, with a counter-punch: it branded the clubs’ latest statement of affairs “irrelevant and inappropriate” and reiterated support for the current European tournaments and their organisers. For once, the battle lines in France are drawn more clearly than in England, where the Heineken Cup has been boycotted before. Significantly, Twickenham did not utter a word on the subject.
For the English clubs, the lawyer Quentin Smith, newly re-elected as chairman of Premier Rugby, the English teams’ umbrella organisation and negotiating body, said: “I have experience in high-level mediation, and mediation takes place only if there is a dispute. We have no dispute. It is important for people to understand that. All we have done is serve notice of our withdrawal from the existing European competitions. We’re out. The stable door has been shut and bolted.”
He could hardly have been clearer. Dismissing the 11th-hour salvage operation by the Heineken Cup organisers – “The political matrix merely muddies the waters when our position is crystal clear,” he remarked – Smith said the planning process for the new club-organised tournament was gathering pace. “We know 26 teams will definitely be participating: 12 from England and 14 from France. That’s the superstructure. By November, when we know how many teams from the Celtic nations and Italy want to be involved and we’re in a position to decide whether we will have one new competition or two, we will refine the infrastructure.”
Late last week, after months of boardroom stalemate, ERC, the Heineken Cup organisers, appointed the Canadian lawyer Graeme Mew as an “independent mediator”. With a number of Irish and Welsh sides thought to be in discussions about playing in the new competition, Mew may end up arbitrating with himself.