Tempers begin to fray as clubs and union collide over Heineken Cup

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The Independent Online

Christmas comes but once a year, generally accompanied by some fresh wrangling over the future of the Heineken Cup. Politically speaking, the world's best club-based tournament is also its most problematic, and now the Paris Accord - or rather, the Paris Discord - providing the framework for the governance of European rugby is due for renegotiation, tempers are beginning to fray. The English teams will not sign a new agreement until shareholding and voting rights are resolved; the French are in a broadcasting dispute that has the potential to end in a boycott of next season's tournament. Ho ho ho.

This week's meeting of the European Rugby Cup board was, at the urging of the English and French clubs, postponed until 10 January. Martyn Thomas, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union, accepts there is "a bit of an impasse" and is preparing for an outbreak of fun and games.

"The Premiership clubs want to take over the full shareholding and voting rights, rather than continue splitting it 50-50 with the union," he said yesterday. "We don't see a need for it, and cannot agree to it. The clubs are honour-bound to participate in Europe under the terms of their Long Form Agreement with us. If the clubs do not sign a new Heineken Cup deal and refuse to participate, it will create a very difficult situation indeed."

The argument has been brewing for months. "This competition is our lifeblood," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, before last season's final. "It's not the lifeblood of the unions. Human nature dictates that the people with most at stake are the ones likeliest to drive tournaments forward and maximise their potential. Yes, we do believe there should be a change of voting structure. If we find ourselves well into next season without agreement, it would be a dereliction of my duty to the Premiership clubs if I didn't say: 'Look, we need to look at fundamental alternatives here'."

We are not simply "well into" the season, but virtually halfway through it. What has happened? Diddly-squat. It beggars belief that a tournament capable of producing riches far beyond anything offered by the international game at present should find itself under such pressure. And if anyone imagines the English clubs are incapable of taking direct action, they should remember the 1998-99 campaign, when they gave ERC a two-fingered salute and spent the season playing among themselves, with a little help from Cardiff and Swansea.

All of which casts a pall over current proceedings, which touched new heights last weekend with an epic encounter between Stade Français and Sale, played out in front of 45,000 spectators in Paris. There will not be quite as many at Edgeley Park for tomorrow's return fixture, but this is no cause for a lessening of anticipation. Sale are now without Mark Cueto as well as the quartet of internationals who missed the first encounter - Charlie Hodgson, Andrew Sheridan, Jason White, Elvis Sevali'i - but must win, possibly with a bonus point, to keep themselves in the hunt.

In truth, it is a lot to ask. Stade Français may not have the services of Christophe Dominici, whose brace of tries last Sunday was of the highest calibre, but they have better forward options in the shape of Benjamin Kayser and Rodrigo Roncero. Sale, meanwhile, have further fitness concerns surrounding Mark Taylor, the Welsh centre, and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the Argentine flanker. Chris Bell and Nathan Bonner-Evans are on standby.

It is depressingly difficult to see any of the English sextet winning their pools and progressing to the knock-out stage as of right, although Wasps at least have an opportunity. They travel to Treviso today with Lawrence Dallaglio restored to the back row, under the captaincy of that most sophisticated of outside-halves, Alex King. Stripped bare of their own front-line talent - most of the Azzurri Test team now play abroad - the Italians are no longer capable of mugging visitors from the more established rugby-playing nations, so the Londoners should come away with another bonus-point victory. That would leave them to outperform Perpignan and Castres over the last two rounds, something they would consider to be within the realms of possibility.

Leicester are also in there fighting, but only the most myopic of Welford Roaders would bank on a victory over Munster in Limerick in the final round. At least today's game with Bourgoin is paranoia-free. The Frenchmen gave up on this tournament long ago.