Italians' bid to join league not a done deal

Tue, Nov 3, 2009, 00:00

RUGBY MAGNERS LEAGUE:ALTHOUGH THE Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) already appear to be giving Italy’s proposed participation in the Magners League next season a chilly shoulder, and the Italian federation’s proposals have run into internal legal difficulties, one of the IRFU’s two board members maintains it is far too early to question the Italians’ entry into the competition.

John Hussey, who along with IRFU chief executive Philip Browne sits on the board, responded to the Italians’ two nominations and lukewarm reaction in Scotland over the weekend by stating: “The review process is only a third way of the through and we should wait until it is completed before decisions are made. The process is the process, and you don’t make a decision until the process is complete.”

On the surface, Italian rugby is beginning to look in better health. The gamble by the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) to stage the Italy-New Zealand match at Milan’s San Siro football stadium has paid off spectacularly, with Saturday week’s game an 80,000 sell-out, while Treviso recently beat French champions and current French league leaders Perpignan on the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup.

However, on foot of the FIR choosing Viadana and Treviso as their nominated league franchises last Friday, Roma are now taking legal action against the federation after claiming they were initially chosen.

Roma have appealed to the FIR’s sport court, but they are ready to take legal actions if the sports judge ratifies the decision of the FIR board.

At the end of a troubled and confusing evaluation process, the FIR board considered that Roma’s Praetorians bid was not strong enough financially, and instead picked Treviso, supported by Benetton.

In choosing Aironi, who represent Viadana, the FIR have opted for a town of fewer than 15,000 inhabitants, in the heart of Padana Plain, which is difficult to reach by plane and/or car, and also logistically costly.

That said, as Hussey countered yesterday: “People have been going to Viadana a long time to play Heineken Cup matches.”

Aironi is a true franchise, which includes clubs from Mantova, Reggio Emilia, Colorno, Noceto and (perhaps above all) Parma, the town of FIR president Dondi.

Magners League chief executive David Jordan expresses the hope that the Italians will help the league to tap into that country’s 60 million population and with that a major sponsor.

However, when Viadana and Treviso met recently, they attracted fewer than 2,000 spectators.

The FIR nominations will be scrutinised by the consultancy firm Deloitte, which has been hired by the Magners board to prepare a report on all aspects of the Italian proposition.

However, the SRU are decidedly lukewarm on the Italian entry – a position which Azzurri coach Nick Mallett claims is born out of self-interest.

In any event, SRU chief executive Gordon McKie sounded this warning about pre-empting that report.

“I would be personally concerned if anyone has given the Italians the impression that this is a done deal. There is an evaluation process which is under way by professional consultants and the Celtic board has not even discussed the issue.

“The Celtic board needs to agree to the move unanimously for the Italians to be invited to join, so I hope the wrong impression has not been given.”

While, in effect, the six-man Celtic board must agree to the advent of two Italian sides unanimously, according to Hussey, “the board of Celtic Rugby decided in principle to admit two Italians teams provided they met the criteria.

“The criteria being under a number of headings, the big one being financial – facilities, television and so on – and we have embarked on an exercise which is about a third of the way through in terms of examining their proposals.

“They’ve gone through a process themselves in Italy. They had a number of people who applied to be the nominated teams and the Italians have been monitoring those proposals and we’re doing our due diligence on them as well.”

Last year, Mallett wrote a report on the state of the game in Italy for the FIR in which he argued that the standard of rugby in the Super 10 was too far below Test level for their players, and that the only way forward was for two, indigenous professional squads to compete in a foreign league.

The only viable option is the Magners League.

If the Magners League board were to deny the Italians’ entry, it could be a crippling blow for the game there. On the premise that their nominated franchises will enter the league next season, the professional Super 10 will be transformed into a semi-professional/non-professional Premiership (called Eccellenza), with 12 teams instead of 10.

Some clubs have reduced their budget and self-relegated to lower divisions (Calvisano from S10 to A2, Capitolina fron S10 to B), with pay cuts also being introduced.

Italian rugby is at something of a crossroads, and it would appear the Magners League board will decide which route it will take from here.

The board hope to make a decision early in the New Year.