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Heineken Cup crowd at Thomond Park
Inpho/Bily Stickland
Another Fine Heineken Cup Mess
4 April 2007, 10:07 am
"One of rugby's greatest promotional vehicles has been wrecked by short-sighted vanity and stubborn self-interest", writes Robert Kitson in today's Guardian newspaper. And he believes, "the various craven administrators owe their disenchanted customers an abject apology".
The French and English have waved two fingers at the Heineken Cup, the game in Scotland is in turmoil, every administrator in Wales and Ireland is subject to a horrible queasy feeling and sponsors and television company executives are grimly studying their contractual small print. It is another fine mess and, unless someone gets a grip, a simmering Anglo-French drama could yet develop into a full-blown global disaster movie.
With every passing day the hidden cost of professional rugby union's latest convulsion increases. Yesterday's confirmation of next year's European boycott has knock-on effects that even the respective negotiators seem slow to grasp. Most have been too busy indulging in political table-football to notice, or care, that they are playing Russian roulette with their sport's future. The loaded barrel might appear to be pressed to English or French temples; in fact it is the rejected Celts who can feel the ominous hint of cold steel most keenly.

Take next season's fixture list, as things stand: where is the financial sense in the Scottish Rugby Union supporting a Glasgow side that will have only nine home Magners League fixtures, has only one other team to play in its own country and never faces the top English or French clubs? Take the Warriors away, along with the condemned Borders, and suddenly a mere nine Celtic League teams remain.
Without Europe their horizons will rapidly contract so far as to imperil even their domestic existence. At a stroke, if you include Italy and Argentina whose players are also directly affected, seven of the world's top 11 Test nations will be weakened by a drop in regular top-level rugby. Casual viewers will be entitled to shrug their shoulders, switch over to something more competitive and rugby will have blown it for a generation.

All this is written in the knowledge that someone, somewhere will probably cobble together some desperate compromise eventually. They always do, out of necessity, but this time the blazers may find themselves faced not just with weary resignation from players and supporters but genuine long-term anger and a flurry of legal challenges. Do not believe those who insist the Heineken Cup will survive unscathed for a season without the French and English. Why on earth would Sky or Heineken bother with a tournament that, if the Rugby Football Union attempts to plug the gaping holes by nominating clubs from National League One, may well consist of unsellable games such as Doncaster v Calvisano or Rotherham v Connacht? If the RFU goes down that route, it would also kiss goodbye to any chance of removing automatic promotion and relegation, always assuming the embittered Premiership owners opt to remain in the fold and the whole English pro game does not topple in on itself.

Under current International Board regulations, it must be stressed, the English and French clubs will have no one to play if they simply abandon the traditional nest. Even so, pressure is steadily mounting on the IRB to accept that the international game is no longer the only show in town. The current dispute has never really been about fixture congestion in France or even general dissatisfaction about the commercial performance of a competition that should be a massive cash cow. Instead it all boils down to power: the old farts against the pip squeaks.

It is almost 12 years since professionalism barged through rugby union's front door and still that unmissable boil has yet to be lanced. It should happen now, at least to the extent of letting the clubs organise their own competitions, but do not bet on it: the French will be loth to do anything that compromises the success of this autumn's World Cup. In the meantime the various craven administrators owe their disenchanted customers an abject apology. One of rugby's greatest promotional vehicles has been wrecked by short-sighted vanity and stubborn self-interest. (Robert Kitson - The Guardian).


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