The English and French clubs who voted to boycott the Heineken Cup face the wrath of the International Rugby Board, which has ordered unions throughout the world not to sanction matches with them.
The Celtic unions fear a financial fallout if Premier Rugby and Ligue Nationale de Rugby go ahead with the boycott, and the Scottish Rugby Union yesterday said that the future of the professional game north of the border was at stake. The heads of the French and English unions held a conference call yesterday to discuss tactics ahead of Wednesday's Dublin board meeting of European Rugby Cup Ltd.
The Rugby Football Union's management board chairman, Martyn Thomas, said he was determined to ensure the Heineken Cup went ahead next season. He will meet First Division Rugby officials on Tuesday to discuss the prospect of second- tier clubs replacing Premiership sides in the event. The French Rugby Federation president, Bernard Lapasset, and the chief executive of the Professional Rugby Players' Association, Damian Hopley, have off ered to broker talks between the RFU and Premier Rugby.
"I have had positive talks with FDR and we will sit down next week," said Thomas. "It is essential to keep the competition going in some form and there is still time for Premier Rugby to return to the table. The IRB is extremely concerned at what has happened this week and is reminding unions of their responsibilities. What we are talking about is the whole ethos of the world game. Who governs it: the board, through its unions, or the clubs?"
The Premier Rugby chief executive, Mark McCafferty, will also be at the ERC board meeting. He maintained that it was not too late to save the tournament . "I have a couple of proposals to put before the ERC board," said McCafferty. "Even though LNR said their decision was non-reversible, I would try to persuade them to come back in if we could agree a deal next week which would see the unions and clubs become equal partners. "The IRB seems to think we are going to try and go off to places like South Africa to play, but that is complete nonsense. We are not looking to try to run the game: we just want to be treated as equals rather than told what to do.
"The Board is conducting a major review of the international calendar, but we have not been invited to take part in the process even though whatever decision is reached will impact on our businesses. What we want is for both the international and club games to be strong, not for one to succeed at the expense of the other."
Sponsors and broadcasters were yesterday waiting to see what unfolded before deciding whether to keep backing ERC. Thomas accepted that fielding National League One clubs instead of the likes of Leicester and Wasps would weaken the event. But, he said, "If English involvement would keep the competition going for a year, it would be worth it."
McCafferty said that if FDR clubs stepped in, Premier Rugby would react. "The RFU would be excluding us from a new tournament and they would have no right to stop us from arranging alternative matches, but it does not have to come to that. We are not a threat to the IRB." Unmentioned in the dispute so far is the F-word - "franchises". LNR believes that the RFU's refusal to hand over half its shares in ERC to Premier Rugby is proof that it intends to field its own teams in Europe from 2009.
"That is not so, and I hope we are not forced into a position where we have to consider going down that route," said Thomas. "It would be a costly exercise which would take resources from the grass roots," said McCafferty. "There is a simple solution to all this: the RFU are the only ones who cannot see it."