Heineken Cup preview: Perhaps timing is right for Clermont’s final fling
Irish sides again stand in the way of Anglo-French power block
Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson, Joe van Niekerk, Matt Giteau and Nick Kennedy lift the cup in the Aviva Stadium last May. Photograph: Inpho
The cloud which hangs over the Heineken Cup makes for a slightly debilitating backdrop to the 19th edition of the best club tournament in the world.
As things stand none of the participants know whether there will be another Heineken Cup, much less whether winning it will ensure qualification for anything next season or merely ensure an immortal place in rugby history.
The Bath owner, multi-millionaire businessman Bruce Craig, and a prime agitator in the Anglo-French alliance as vice-President of PRL (Premiership Rugby), told the Sud Ouest newspaper earlier this week that their proposed breakaway competition, the Rugby Champions Cup, is the only solution to the current impasse and maintained that it would be ratified for next season as early as next month.
“There are meetings and positive developments,” he was quoted as saying. “People are beginning to understand that the Rugby Champions Cup is the only solution to the crisis. I think we will reach an agreement before the start of international matches in November.”
Craig also claimed that the RFU are siding with Premiership Rugby and that the Welsh regions are keen to join, but will be prevented by their Union from doing so. Whether the regions are, or not, is questionable, but the Welsh RFU CEO Roger Lewis certainly did made it clear over the weekend that the regions must sign a new participation agreement for next season by this December or kiss goodbye to their Union’s funding and thus face oblivion. It is also clear that the French Federation and the Celtic and Italian unions are not for blinking.
However, the RFU CEO Ian Ritchie is busily endeavouring to broker a deal between all parties concerned, with the help of the mediator, Graeme Mew, appointed by ERC for mediation talks scheduled for October 23rd.
There remains a hope that two revised, pan-European tournaments might yet materialize from the wreckage, whether under the auspices of the ERC or not, or with a trimmed down ERC operation relocating from its Dublin base (Geneva has been mentioned in dispatches).
Yet whether the issues of financial distribution, qualification and the overseeing body can be resolved, there remains one enormous stumbling block, namely the conflicting television deals which the ERC and Premiership Rugby have signed with Sky and BT, rivals in a huge broadband war in mainland Britain.
Rumours have gathered momentum that attempts are being made to hammer out a deal involving both Sky and BT, but Sky must feel hugely embittered by Premiership Rugby after years of ploughing millions into the English club game and selling its product, never mind the prospect of sleeping with the enemy.
It’s hard to see how that one can be resolved, but if there is to be a Heineken Cup in a revised format, or an alternative pan-European competition, the irony of next Friday’s opening salvos in this season’s tournament are delicious.
Connacht host loud, brash Saracens, whose South African backers and chairman Nigel Wray are other leading figures in the Anglo-French alliance.
If Wray and Saracens have their way, only the top six from the Rabo Pro12 would qualify for their atom-splitting new tournament, purging the Heineken Cup or its putative replacement of teams like Connacht, whom they clearly see as a blight on their landscape.
Connacht are only dining at European rugby’s top table for the third year running thanks to Leinster backing up two Heineken Cup triumphs with last May’s Amlin Challenge Cup success. Dismayed by the pesky Irish having the nerve to win either tournament, Wray and his Anglo-French cohorts complain long and hard about the way leading Celtic sides can afford to rest leading players from Pro12 matches to focus their attentions on European games.