independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

England fear Euro crisis could hit Six Nations

Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie

England have resumed talks with their Heineken Cup partners, warning that if a European tournament is not in place next season it could threaten the future of the Six Nations Championship.

Ian Ritchie, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, was not invited to the other five unions' meeting in Dublin last month and he believes their decision to play the Heineken Cup next season in a transitional year without the English clubs could have serious consequences for the international tournament.

"You do not want to have a vacuum next season for teams not involved in the Heineken Cup to fill, which is why we have to get this resolved. If it affects the Six Nations, we are in trouble," he said.

Ritchie said he was not just surprised at being excluded but thought a formula had been agreed two weeks earlier. It would have meant the Six Nations committee taking over the organisation of the tournament from European Rugby Cup (ERC), although a proposal to allow clubs to run the commercial operation had not won the support of the Pro12 League unions.

However, the French federation scuppered the deal -- wanting to replace the committee with a bigger governing body for the game in Europe, along the lines of football's UEFA.

"The Heineken Cup issue is complex enough without tying it into a larger discussion about the organisation of European rugby," Ritchie said. "I believe in the doable and there is the capability of resolving the future of a club tournament now.

"We have agreed on a lot, including the financials with built-in protection for the Pro12 unions, who would have a guaranteed position for five years. Given that, it is not unreasonable to think about who has control of commercial activities."

Ritchie spoke to various parties on the phone last week, but no meeting has been arranged. One potential stumbling block is the dispute between the Welsh Rugby Union and its four regions that is threatening to escalate in the new year. The regions have been given until the end of the month to sign a new participation agreement. If they fail to do so -- and they claim that would be economic suicide because it offers no increase in income for the next four years -- the WRU will need to find new teams to compete in the Pro12 and Europe. The regions would look to clubs in England and France to back them and refuse to play other sides from Wales.

The regions are in talks with Premiership Rugby about setting up an Anglo-Welsh league next season and Ritchie has been accused of being soft on his clubs to ensure that the 2015 World Cup, which the RFU is hosting, runs smoothly.

Observer

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