Saturday 21 October 2017

All aboard ERC ship going to God knows where

Toulon opting for the Heineken Cup makes for interesting times, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you reached for the dictionary last Thursday night looking for a word to describe a boycott of a competition that doesn't exist then you searched in vain. Your exercise would have been prompted by Toulon's moneybags, Mourad Boudjellal, who simultaneously spat the dummy and threw the toys out of the pram. In another setting, it could have passed for performance art.

In what is unlikely to cause him any embarrassment, he said he was running back into the arms of ERC and the Heineken Cup because they don't have any restrictions on foreign players – of whom there is a legion in Toulon – unlike the pedantic French league body, the LNR, who are trying to get some France-qualified players into their game.

Oh dear. Does it matter that rule 3.7 in the ERC tournament guide details exactly the restrictions that exist on non-EU players in Europe? Probably not, for on a scale of endorsements to be avoided you'd sooner get one on your driving licence than this thumbs-up from the slightly mad Mourad.

His declaration was dutifully reported as a development in the war over European turf, suggesting that there is no such thing as a fixed position, that no trench is so deep that a man can't climb out and scuttle off somewhere else.

If it were evidence of this then the Celtalians would be feeling even better about life ahead of Wednesday's mediated meeting in a Dublin hotel, an OK Corral get-together which clearly isn't okay. It wasn't. It was just Mourad.

Even so, the Celtic-Italian faction will walk into the room on Wednesday afternoon to meet mediator Graeme Mew, and their union colleagues from England and France, hoping that it's not a waste of time. On the face of it, peace talks without the enemy at the table is like praying for a lotto win without buying a ticket.

The only saving grace is that in the four-week gap between ERC announcing this meeting and its kick-off on Wednesday there has been movement behind the scenes, with (English) RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie acting as broker. The extent of this movement depends on who you talk to, but certainly the proximity of the World Cup has England's administrators living right on the edge. Not only is it their gig, but having worked hard to install a player management programme based roughly on Ireland's model – one which they are in the process of extending – their chances of success will be greatly enhanced if all stay on board.

For Ireland, and indeed everyone outside of France, the importance of being a part of something – anything almost – was brought home again yesterday by Paul O'Connell. He celebrates his 34th birthday today. Not for the first time he mentioned how, much as he loves Limerick, his body clock keeps reminding him of the big world beyond the edge of town. "If I had to consider my options elsewhere I certainly would," he said. "It's a big regret of mine that I never played abroad. I haven't started discussing my contract yet, so we'll see what happens."

O'Connell is one of at least 11 players, including Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Donnacha Ryan, Rory Best and Conor Murray, whose contracts are up for renewal at the end of the season. Typically, the IRFU leave negotiations till late in the day, though in O'Connell's case it is understood, notwithstanding his comments, that meetings have taken place with his agent. The effect of delayed dealings now would be to give players a clearer picture on what class of rugby might be on offer in these parts when 2013/14 opens for business.

Wednesday's meeting will be against that backdrop, one where players will follow the ball which follows the money. With Mourad claiming he is about to jump back on board the steady old ship named ERC, who knows where that voyage will take us.

Sunday Independent

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