Structure remains a cause of conflict

Agreement over Six Nations timing may be short-lived as administrators aim to end fixture chaos
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The Independent Online

The American politician Hubert Humphrey once passed caustic judgement on the democratic process by declaring: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously". That was the best part of 40 years ago, when rugby union embraced democracy in the way Syria embraces snowboarding. Indeed, the sport was so unashamedly feudal in its outlook during the mid-1960s that William Webb Ellis was less relevant to the oval-ball game than William the Conqueror.

It is different now, thanks to professionalism and the market forces it let loose. National unions the world over have accepted that rugby can no longer be run as a private fiefdom, sharp-suited businessmen have replaced sozzled wing commanders in many of the positions of greatest influence, and outbreaks of player-power have concentrated minds from England to Samoa via Canada and Argentina. Full steam ahead, then? Not on your nelly.

A quick straw poll among representatives of England's Premiership community reveals deep frustration at the failure of the Six Nations committee to go the whole hog by sectioning off Europe's major international tournament and freeing up the rest of the season for domestic and cross-border club activity. The decision to play the Six Nations over seven weeks rather than 10 – too radical by half for the Welsh Rugby Union, nowhere near radical enough for those parties who wanted an uninterrupted programme of matches played over a maximum of six weeks – has opened up a new political rift that may rumble on for years and threaten the stability of the game in the northern hemisphere.

Within hours of the Six Nations declaration, in which the "halfway house" format was put in place until after the 2007 World Cup, the Euro Pro-Rugby Club Association issued a request for an urgent meeting with the decision-makers. This was significant. EPRCA may sound like the latest ingredient in rugby's indigestible alphabet soup – since 1995, the English game alone has been lumbered with EPRUC, ERP, EFDR, ESDR and PRA, to name but a few – but this new body represents the professional sides of France, Italy, Wales and Spain, as well as those operating in red rose country. (The Irish provinces and Scottish super-clubs are keen to throw their weight behind the venture, and will do so once some regulatory minutiae has been put to bed).

Perhaps the key point about EPRCA is its delegates' determination to present a united front on the serious issues affecting them – quite a departure for the English, French and Welsh, in any sphere. The first serious issue, and quite possibly the most serious the association will ever have to deal with, is the structured season. EPRCA believes professional club rugby has the potential to create what economists call a virtuous circle, in which players, supporters, owner-investors, national unions and Test teams can thrive. They also believe that without some rationalisation of the fixture list, their chances of success are somewhere close to zero.

As a result, they will not let this Six Nations declaration go unchallenged. "We see this compromise as a lost opportunity," said Howard Thomas, the acting chief executive of Premier Rugby (the English Premiership clubs' umbrella organisation) and one of the key figures behind the establishment of EPRCA. "We are not trying to raise the temperature or overthrow the decision for the sake of it – indeed, we respect the fact that a lot of different agendas were on the table: national agendas, sponsorship agendas, broadcasting agendas. But until we get all interested bodies together and talk this thing through, the issue will remain unresolved."

Many major club owners and financiers, in France as well as on the British mainland, claim the consultation process trumpeted by the Six Nations committee passed them by. "We were not exactly ignored," said one prominent English investor this week, "but I don't think our views were taken particularly seriously. There is still this feeling amongst certain rugby administrators that the clubs should shut up and get on with it. But we won't shut up. The structured season is fundamental to the chances of us making a success of our businesses. This has to be addressed again."

Thomas sounded a similar note. "I would like to think the structure and timing of the Six Nations will be revisited, and revisited fairly soon," he said. "When you talk to the people directly involved in the club game, it is clear that this is not the ultimate solution. Had the Six Nations committee gone for a six-week format, the clubs in England would willingly have closed their doors for those six weeks. They cannot and will not close their doors for seven weeks. Under this system, we will still have players moving from Test rugby to club rugby and then back to Tests, and we will still have a couple of rounds of Premiership matches stuck in the middle of nowhere, looking silly."

Premiership rugby will look even sillier if the Heineken Cup, the élite European competition, and the second-tier Parker Pen Shield further invade its end-of-season space. The board of European Rugby Cup Ltd will meet next month under the chairmanship of the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Lux to consider the positioning of their tournaments in light of the Six Nations declaration, and the indications are that delegates will shift the quarter-finals of both from January to the spring – possibly as late as the end of April. As European rugby takes precedence over domestic rugby, that could squeeze the championship programmes in England and France and raise all sorts of fixture complications.

"I think there probably is a feeling that the knock-out rounds of the European tournaments should be in the same area of the season, rather than spread out as they are now, and I know for a fact that there is a lot of support for the finals to continue to be played in May," said Derek McGrath, the ERC chief executive. "Our meeting on 15 January is an important one, because we need to start planning further ahead and developing a vision of where we want to get to."

One solution might be to run the European competitions in one block, straight after the end of the Six Nations in March. There would be clear advantages of neatness and natural momentum, and it would allow the very best clubs to challenge for the Heineken silverware in the most propitious circumstances by qualifying for the major competition directly from a domestic campaign played over five and a half months between September and mid-February. At the moment, the break between qualification and participation is too great. Wasps, for example, are nowhere near as potent a side as they were last season; nor are Toulouse, or Cardiff, or Swansea. Other clubs – Gloucester, Sale, Agen, Neath – would have wielded greater clout. By reducing the gap between booking a place at the top table and actually sitting at it, the organisers would improve the quality of the tournament.

But ultimately, no fundamental re-shaping of the European season can take place until the three components – domestic, cross-border, international – are allowed to stand alone, to develop their own characters and generate competitive impetus free from interference and interruption from other competitions. This is the challenge faced by the game's administrators: to leave the comforts of the halfway house and head for home.

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