Rugby’s governing bodies have quite enough worries right now – the crisis over the future of the Heineken Cup, a Six Nations tournament that is fast becoming an unequal struggle between the haves and have-nots – without contemplating the possible collapse of the Pro 12 league, which provides bread-and-butter weekly activity for the Irish provinces, the Scottish super-clubs, the Welsh regions and the Italian professional franchises. Unnervingly, there were distinct sounds of crumbling masonry yesterday.
Treviso, the leading Italian side, suddenly declared they would quit the Pro 12 at the end of the season – an announcement made all the more dramatic by the fact that neither they nor anyone else in Azzurri rugby had the foggiest idea as to what the alternative might be. But with the Parma-based Zebre, very much the junior of the country’s two top-level teams, expected to follow suit and the four Welsh outfits talking ever more determinedly about breaking away from their union and joining the English Premiership, the game could be left with a Pro 6 at best – and an unsponsored Pro 6 at that, given the decision of the banking group RaboDirect to sever links at the close of the current campaign.
The Italians have been questioning their involvement in the tournament for some time, as much on value for money grounds as anything else. They stump up some €3m (£2.5m) a year for the right to participate, even though their basic travelling costs are more substantial than any of their rivals’. Recently, the president of the national union, Alfredo Gavazzi, argued that a new eight-team domestic competition, underpinned by an improved academy structure, might yield better dividends for the game in his country, thereby falling in line with those who, from the very outset, warned against the downgrading of the old club league.
Tomorrow, senior representatives of the Six Nations Council, headed by the Rugby Football Union chairman Bill Beaumont, are scheduled to meet their opposite numbers from the club movement in another attempt to find common ground on the Heineken Cup, which has been a sporting no man’s land since the English and French teams served notice of their intention to quit the tournament the best part of two years ago. Treviso’s move should concentrate a few minds. To lose one major tournament might be viewed as careless. To lose two would be criminal.
On the Premiership front, there was a good deal of movement at Newcastle, who are not entirely free of relegation fears, despite Worcester’s continuing failure to win a game. The Tynesiders lured the rugby league wing Lee Smith across the great divide – a smart signing on the face of it, given that the 27-year-old Wakefield Trinity player won three consecutive grand finals during his time at Leeds – but lost the services of the Italian Test lock Carlo Del Fava to premature retirement. Del Fava has packed it in with immediate effect on medical advice after suffering a long-term neck injury.