RFU chief Ritchie effectively the go-between now as Heineken Cup negotiations continue
Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie is believed to be meeting with representatives from the Celtic and Italian unions this week on foot of ongoing discussions he has been having with Premiership Rugby (PRL). Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/GettyImages.
As negotiations between the factions in the ongoing dispute over the future of European club rugby continue apace, RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie has effectively become the go-between rather than ERC mediator Graeme Mew.
Ritchie is believed to be meeting with representatives from the Celtic and Italian unions this week on foot of ongoing discussions he has been having with Premiership Rugby (PRL).
Appointed to the role less than two years ago, Ritchie and the IRFU are caught between a rock and a hard place. Hosting the 2015 World Cup is uppermost on their agenda.
The RFU is in the midst of negotiating a new agreement with PRL, embracing player release and financial compensation with clubs. However, they also do not want to alienate their fellow European unions, not least as the Celts and Italians are due to sign a World Cup participation agreement in December.
While there has been no threat as yet of them not signing the latter agreement, the Celtis and the Italians earn more money from the Heineken Cup than the World Cup which, effectively costs them their lucrative November Tests at home.
Although there have been more conciliatory words emanating from the English and French clubs, and there is increased optimism within the upper echelons of Irish rugby that a compromise might yet be reached, it’s difficult to see what Ritchie can achieve in the short-term until such time as he hammers out an agreement between all parties.
The English clubs, especially, and their French counterparts in La Ligue Nationale du Rugby are adamant they will not attend the mediation talks which the ERC have called for this day next week.
Furthermore, when they meet with Ritchie this week, the Celts and Italians can merely repeat what they have been willing to discuss in the unproductive talks between all stakeholders in the future of the Heineken Cup, namely concessions regarding a revised format for the tournament and meritocratic qualification.
Heretofore they have been willing to consider a revised tournament comprising 20, 24 or 32 teams, but the PRL and LNR are understood to have ruled out all options other than their own proposal fora 20-team tournament, comprising the top six from each of the three main qualifying leagues along with the winners of the two pan-European tournaments. In any event, the row is primarily about governance and money.