Euro rugby, formed two years ago to accelerate the development of the professional club game in the northern hemisphere in the face of deep suspicion from some national unions and international bodies, yesterday declared its unequivocal support for the top sides in Wales, who are fighting for survival in the face of a move to establish four provincial teams, with players operating under central contracts.
English clubs have been here before: in the autumn of 1998, they backed Cardiff and Swansea in their dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union and played a series of unsanctioned fixtures against the two, matches that prompted the International Rugby Board to discipline the Rugby Football Union for failing to take preventative action.
There is no immediate prospect of a similar situation arising as a result of this latest exercise in Welsh rugby masochism. The clubs are meeting the union, and its new chief executive, David Moffett, in Cardiff today – representatives missed yesterday's Euro congress in Windsor to prepare for the confrontation – and are hopeful of hammering out a compromise. But Howard Thomas, the deputy chairman of Euro Rugby, was adamant that what he called the "great brands" of the game in Wales – Cardiff, Swansea, Llanelli and Newport – must be protected and warned of possible ramifications at Heineken Cup level if a provincial set-up is driven through against their wishes.
"It is essential that we safeguard the heritage of the game in Wales and I find it amazing that these major assets could be thrown away because the WRU does not know how to establish a professional club game in its country," Thomas said. "We are greatly concerned at what is going on in Wales. The clubs are signatories to the Paris Accord [the agreement under which the Heineken Cup and Parker Pen Challenge Cup are operated] and that agreement can be changed only if all the signatories give their assent. We cannot fight the battle for the Welsh clubs. If they give up, they give up. But I don't think they will."
The organisation, which has clubs from England, France, Wales and Italy as full members, and associate members in Ireland, Scotland and Spain, has identified Italian and Spanish rugby as its top priority in terms of financial and professional aid. "If this game is to grow, it needs a vision," Thomas continued. "In the northern hemisphere, the professional clubs are serious stakeholders, and we are keen to start a process of recognition and positive action. We are not preaching revolution, but evolution. We have a lot to offer."
Both Thomas and the Euro Rugby chairman, the Frenchman Patrick Wolff, highlighted their desire to negotiate a seat on the IRB Council, the most important policy-making body in world rugby. "It is our ultimate aim," Thomas said. "We want to bring about positive changes to the way the sport is managed."
* The former South Africa fly-half Joel Stransky has won £150,000 damages from Bristol for breach of contract, claiming successfully that the club went back on a deal to take him on as a coach.
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