Mediator to assist latest talks on the future of European club rugby
Renewed resolve apparent to try to in some way broker an agreement with English clubs’ umbrella body
England head coach Stuart Lancaster: has been alarmed at the stance of the English clubs and their representative body, Premiership Rugby. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
The chief executives of the four home Unions along with their French and Italian counterparts will meet tomorrow, in the presence of a mediator, for fresh discussions over the immediate future of European club rugby. This is the latest and most significant attempt to break the impasse in the ongoing Heineken Cup row.
Whether or not the mediation talks prompt a significant breakthrough on the day, the fact that the meeting has been arranged this side of Christmas demonstrates the renewed resolve amongst the respective chief executives to try and find some way of bringing the English clubs and Welsh regions into the fold.
The renewed resolve is perhaps most acute within the RFU and its chief executive Iain Ritchie, who remains the only credible link between the respective Unions and the English clubs. It is understood that he has been in regular contact with the Bath owner Bruce Craig, as well as his Union counterparts.
As things stand, the English clubs’ umbrella body, Premiership Rugby (PRL), has stated it will not take part in any tournament organised by the ERC, despite the Unions and Federations conceding to all its demands regarding tournament format, meritocratic qualification and financial share-out. This raises real fears that the kernel of their problem is their conflicting deal with BT.
The Irish, Welsh and Scottish Unions, along with their French and Italian Federation counterparts, are committed to a Heineken Cup next season under the auspices of the ERC, leaving both the RFU reluctantly out in the cold along with the hawkish PRL.
However, the prospect of English clubs not partaking in next season’s Heineken Cup, one year out from England hosting the World Cup, has seemingly alarmed Ritchie, not least as it has apparently infuriated the English coach Stuart Lancaster. The PRL chief executive, Mark McCafferty, has somehow suggested that a break from a pan-European club tournament might do the English players some good in the build-up to RWC 2015!
Unsurprisingly though, Lancaster does not share the view that denying the leading English players the chance to test themselves against the best teams in European rugby – at a level above their domestic league – will help his and England’s preparations for the World Cup on home soil.
Heretofore, the RFU have been keen to avert any disagreements with PRL on the eve of the World Cup, and so exasperated had the other Unions become with the apparent RFU prevarication that last month they had discussions without Ritchie.
This surprised Ritchie, who has been maintaining dialogue with all sides in a bid to find some kind of resolution.
Last week, he gave a briefing to some of the English media, at which he revealed that the possibility of having a European Cup run by the Six Nations had been explored at a meeting of all the six Unions and Federations, but that the French Federation were opposed to such a proposal.
But this had never been agreed and was, by last week, somewhat out of date.
That proposal might still return to the agenda for tomorrow’s mediation talks, but it seems a longer shot than the agreed ERC-run Heineken Cup with or, more likely, without the English clubs.
But the ghosts in the room at the meeting remain the PRL – and the elephant in the room is their deal with BT which is in direct conflict with the ERC’s deal with Sky, BT’s rivals in a broadband war.
Paddy Wallace is set to start his first Ulster game in nine months after knee reconstruction and two outings with the Ravens, when the province host Zebretomorrow.