ENGLAND'S top clubs -- angered at being excluded from a meeting of key European stakeholders in Paris -- may withdraw from negotiations scheduled for Dublin next week to resolve the future structure of the Heineken Cup.
Premiership Rugby is due to make a call by close of business today as to how best to proceed with the process, with a postponement in the talks until after the autumn internationals next month being considered to provide a 'cooling-off period'.
What is clear is that tensions have been heightened by the Paris meeting, which was attended by representatives from all six unions, including Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, and Rob Andrew, the professional rugby director, and the French clubs.
There is a feeling in the English clubs that the move was intended to drive a wedge between them and their French counterparts, who had backed Premiership Rugby's calls for a reform of the structure of the Heineken Cup including the qualification process from the Pro12 League.
It is understood that two proposals were put to the French clubs, including an enlarged tournament of 32 clubs, made up of 10 English clubs, 10 from the Pro 12 and 12 from the French Top 14, with the Amlin Challenge Cup to be scrapped.
Encouragingly for the English clubs, that proposal -- along with the second which retained the status quo of the Heineken Cup but reduced the Challenge Cup to 16 teams -- was rejected by the French representatives.
It is understood that the French clubs also intimated that they would not countenance a European tournament that did not include their English counterparts, which effectively ruled out any potential to set up a new tournament without the agreement of the Premiership sides.
The effective re-affirming of the Anglo-French alliance, if nothing else, is likely to leave the Celtic and Italian unions in little doubt about the seriousness of their calls for the the Heineken Cup to be overhauled.
The English and French clubs want the Heineken Cup to be reduced to 20 clubs, with just the top six from each of league qualifying, including last season's champions and the winners of the Challenge Cup.
Despite the Paris snub, the Premiership clubs are understood to be willing to compromise the qualification criteria, so there is a mixture of meritocracy and representation from every country. "Our position on the competition format post 2014 is clear," said Premiership Rugby's chief executive Mark McCafferty. (© Daily Telegraph, London)