The vexed future of the Heineken Cup, by common consent the best club rugby competition in the world, was being debated once again yesterday as delegates from all six competing nations gathered in Rome to work out a way of holding the thing together in the face of English and French threats to walk away in 2014.
While those talks were in progress, Twickenham confirmed that it was throwing its weight behind a change of format. "Our view is very clear, we want a highly-competitive, meritocratic competition," said Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union.
The clue to his thinking was in the m-word. At present, there are guaranteed places for each country: six for England and France, three for Ireland and Wales, two for Scotland and Italy. This system, considered to be grossly unfair by the two biggest nations, is now on its last legs. With RFU support, the argument for a tougher, results-based qualification format is likely to be won.
Ritchie and his organisation are in a sensitive position in another important respect. The decision of the English clubs to sign a £152m broadcasting deal with BT Vision that includes rights to European matches involving Premiership teams has caused uproar across rugby-playing Europe and the chief executive confirmed yesterday that his organisation had not given its approval. Pressed on the matter, he admitted that the clubs had not even sought such approval.
"A process is now under way and, while I have no idea at all how things will turn out, we have some time on our side and I'm optimistic that an agreement can be reached," Ritchie added.
"The question is how we get from where we are to where we want to be in terms of the quality European tournament we all want to see. Will it end up with the lawyers? My view is always that you can obviate legal action by agreeing between yourselves."
Not for the first time in his brief Twickenham career, Ritchie was asked whether there might be room at the RFU for the return of Sir Clive Woodward, the architect of the World Cup-winning campaign of 2003 – especially as Woodward's tour of duty with the British Olympic Association is at an end. "As there is no vacancy, there's no point talking about abstractions," Ritchie replied, with an air of weary finality.Reuse content