Magners set to remain a no-go area for Italians
Expansion plan has hit a roadblock, says Brendan Fanning
The chances of two Italian clubs joining next season's Magners League are widely considered to be remote, although there is still a fortnight before consultants deliver a report on the proposal.
It is understood that the Italians are struggling to meet the financial criteria asked of them by Celtic Rugby. Moreover, there are political issues in Italy over the prospect of creating two 'super clubs' with the wherewithal to compete in the league.
There are question marks too over the chances of either side -- Benetton Treviso and Viadana -- being competitive in the November series and Six Nations windows when the extra fixtures would have to be played with both sides depleted by international call-ups. While this would apply to all clubs in the competition, clearly the Italians would be least equipped to cope.
Following a meeting with Celtic Rugby chairman John Hussey and director of operations David Jordan 10 days ago, Italian Federation (FIR) president Giancarlo Dondi was said to be furious about what he considered to be a shift of the goalposts.
In addition to requirements about facilities and squad strengths, it's understood that the Italians are being asked to cough up €3m between the two clubs as an entry fee. This would go towards compensating the current constituency of 10 teams in supplementing their squads for the extra four games, and covering the cost of the two extra away games, which would be roughly €30,000 each.
Furthermore, the Italians are being asked to come up with €1.2m in tv money to add to the pot which currently amounts to circa €6m with contributions from Channel S4C, BBC Wales, Setanta Ireland and STV.
It has been suggested that the fallback option for FIR will be to abandon the Magners plan, leave the 10-team Italian league to continue as is, but to come up with two super clubs to compete in the Heineken Cup, thus increasing the competitiveness of those clubs and having a positive knock-on effect for Italy in the Six Nations.
It is unlikely however that ERC would accept entry from clubs who didn't operate on that basis throughout the season, and didn't have first call on their players from the start of the season. The ERC board meets on February 3 and it's thought that there is little chance of all the criteria being satisfied by then.
The impetus for including Italy in the first place comes from the IRB who want to see a more competitive Italy in the Six Nations. Club rugby is the obvious stepping stone towards that. The idea also received the support of John Hussey, who is trying to get the deal over the line.
Hussey is keen to have a fallback option in Celtic Rugby if Wales decide to do another solo run as they did five years ago with the establishment of the Anglo Welsh Cup, later the Powergen Cup. The compromise then was that the Welsh clubs would have to play their local derbies on their own time, but it was a reminder of the practicalities of professional sport. If a split were to happen then Ireland's provinces would be left high and dry.
It remains to be seen though how the Italians can be accommodated in a way that enhances the quality of the competition, even in the medium term. Already its integrity is undermined by the IRFU's Player Management Programme which requires the provinces to rest international players at various points during the season. The Magners League always loses out to the Heineken Cup in these decisions. Playing extra games without the Test stars, while increasing the exposure of the competition to the public, would be weakening the quality of the product.