Welsh clubs opt out of the Heineken Cup
‘It is now clear that there are a number of significant advantages to the new competitions’
The Welsh regions have announced their support for the Rugby Champions Cup. Photograph: Getty Images
In what may prove a decisive development in the dispute over the future of the Heineken Cup, the four Welsh regions last night threw their support behind the newly proposed Rugby Champions Cup. This basically means the ERC and IRFU have lost a valuable ally to the English clubs Premiership Rugby (PRL) and French La Ligue Nationale du Rugby (LNR).
The Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and Dragons now intend to be part of a breakaway tournament. “Regional Rugby Wales (RRW) on behalf of the four Welsh regions confirms its full support for the proposed new Rugby Champions Cup competitions,” read last night’s statement.
“Whilst there remain elements of detail to be confirmed, it is now clear that there are a number of significant advantages to the new competitions in equality of governance, format, qualification and distribution across the individual participating clubs. “Consequently, RRW looks forward to working with the WRU to support their efforts and positive engagement in striving to ensure our teams are involved in strong, valuable European clubs competitions in time for next season.”
Unlike their Irish counterparts, the Welsh Rugby Union are unable to prohibit their regional teams from aligning themselves with PRL and LNR.
Stuart Gallacher, the chief executive of the RRW, despite being one of the longest serving members of the ERC board now fronts a group that has opted not to support the current European structures.
Mediation talks, to be chaired by Canadian lawyer Graeme Mew, with all stakeholders are still due to take place today but the French and English clubs have already stated their intention not to attend.
In response to these developments, the IRFU said last night: “We note the recent statement from Toulon, and today’s statement. However, as negotiations continue it would be inappropriate to comment on either.”
Comments by Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal last Thursday appeared to indicate a thaw in the Anglo-French alliance. Boudjellal stated that Toulon would take part in next season’s Heineken Cup as the ERC did “not demand quotas on foreign players, contrary to the Ligue Nationale.”
It remains to be seen how this impacts on the union’s attempt to keep Ireland’s best players at home as the contracts of Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Conor Murray are all up for re-negotiation.
The dispute ultimately comes down to governance and money with two separate television deals, one negotiated by the ERC with Sky Sports and BT Sport’s separate agreement with English clubs.
Last season the IRFU received €6.8 million from the ERC, Wales, Scotland and Italy got €4.9 million each, English clubs got €10 million while the French got €12 million.
PRL and LNR are understood to have ruled out all options other than their own proposal for a 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.
It’s unclear how the Welsh regions decision will impact on their ongoing relationship with their Rabo Direct Pro 12 league partners. “If for example the Rabo (Pro 12) becomes based on meritocracy when every game in the Rabo is critical and fundamental it would be fantastic for the Irish teams because now we will simply have to perform,” said IRFU director of rugby Eddie Wigglesworth in an interview yesterday with The Irish Times about the union’s player succession strategy.
“It would lift the whole concept of the Rabo and drive the whole succession strategy. I would just see us getting stronger and stronger.”