French say `oui' to Cup
Allez les bleus, encore une fois. The European Cup didn't exactly cast away its metaphorical crutches yesterday and bound out of the emergency ward, but after receiving a shot in the arm by way of an imprimatur from the French Federation and its clubs, the competition was at least up and jogging again for the 1998/99 season.
French Federation president Bernard Lapasset confirmed after meeting with representatives of the French clubs in Toulouse yesterday: "The French clubs will be in Europe - it is official."
Confirmation that the leading French clubs will play in the European Cup, which starts on September 19th, and thus not follow the isolationist lead of the English clubs, was welcomed by Roger Pickering, chief executive of the European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC), from their offices in Dublin yesterday.
"I am very pleased, but in no way surprised, by today's news from France," he said. "Over many months the French position has been steadfast and consistent. They have been very keen for the English clubs to remain in the European competitions but they have never even hinted that they would not participate - with or without an English presence."
Nonetheless, it wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement by the French for the competition. Of the Gallic quintet in the European Cup three clubs - Colomiers, Perpignan and Stade Francais - are all known to be in favour of the competition but have still to fully declare their support.
Stade Toulousain (inaugural winners three years ago) and Begles-Bordeaux, the other two sides eligible to compete, have yet to declare their hand. If they refuse to take part, then their places would be taken by Narbonne and Castres. All 11 French clubs engaged in the European Shield (formerly the Conference) have already confirmed their intention to take part, which will feature debuts in the competition for Spanish and Portuguese sides. The 21 participating teams will be divided into three groups of seven.
The draw for a trimmed down, 16-team European Cup has already been made, which will see the protagonists compete in four groups of four on a home-and-away basis, rather than last year's format of five groups of five.
Pickering admitted that the t's had still to be crossed and the i's dotted on television and sponsorship deals. "We have a contract with Sky for the next four years," said Pickering, though presumably one of the conditions of their coverage was the presence of English sides.
In the event of Sky pulling out, it may mean less money being pumped into the competition but it could mean more coverage from terrestrial television, who are on standby. Pickering also admitted that the competition may no longer be known as the Heineken Cup.
Heineken's sponsorship deal expired at the end of last year's competition and although negotiations are still ongoing, the word from Heineken in London was that they would monitor events over the next few days before making a decision; clearly intimating that no less than Sky, the presence of the English is vital to their continuing involvement.
Nevertheless, ERC Ltd have been having discussions with other potential sponsors and Pickering maintains "there will be sponsorship".
Brazenly, English First Division Rugby chief executive Doug Ash defiantly vowed to continue his attempt at creating a rival European Cup. `I am going ahead on the basis of setting up a 24-club competition involving France, England, and Wales. I will be putting that in front of the RFU and asking them to explore the possibilities of attracting Scotland, Ireland and Italian participation."
Meanwhile, the English RFU appeared to be stepping back in line with the other unions, and especially the French, judging by a statement which claimed that the RFU and the FFR would "jointly enter into negotiations with the other four unions with a view to establishing a new European competition, to commence in season 1999/2000".
Chairman Brian Baister added: "I have also spoken to EFDR who support, in principle, the agreement we have reached with the FFR concerning future club participation in Europe."
However, Ash ruled out the possibility of the top English clubs following the example of their French counterparts. He said:
"Under no circumstances will we re-enter the European Rugby Cup as it is currently set up. And, if our project does not succeed, we are no further back than when we took our own conscious decision to disregard ERC at the end of last year."
A Six Nations meeting is to be called by chairman Allan Hosie within the next few days to discuss both current and future European Rugby competitions.
Pickering underlined that "the door is still open for the English clubs" but accepted they were unlikely to re-enter the fray at such short notice. "In the coming season. That means we will have to do a lot of work with them to get them involved next season."
Aside from the remaining flies in the ointment this season (no English participation, question marks about sponsorship, television and financial guarantees for the French), Lapasset added a rider which shows yesterday's decision to be a one-year stay of execution. "If England are not back in Europe in 1999-2000 then there won't be another European Cup."