Old guard losing ground in battle for control of Europe
New order without ERC starting to appeal to Celts and Italians, says Brendan Fanning
At lunchtime last Thursday, we had an interesting twist in the European row that is hovering like a dark cloud over every rugby field from Treviso to the Sportsground.
It came in the form of co-ordinated statements from the Celtic and Italian brotherhood. Not a joint statement as such, rather the same message with a few of the names changed, and the button pushed at the same time in Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Rome.
With the playing pitch having been dominated by the Anglo-French alliance, this was what looked like a belated attempt by the Celtic-Italian side to come in off the touchline.
Two things struck you: first, the sheer blandness of the statement suggested they had nothing new to say, but felt that with a co-ordinated and more effective stream of comment coming from the various club owners on the other side of the fence, it was time to be seen and heard saying something; second, however, was the significant omission of the letters 'ERC' from the text.
This has prompted some comment over the last few days – though, interestingly, not in Ireland – and understandably so, for it was the first indication from the unions that they might get their spectacles around a vision of Europe that is not run from an office in Dublin with the ERC nameplate over the door.
"The IRFU and its clubs remain fully committed to the development of a pan-European rugby competition and we welcome the recent comments made by the IRB chairman, who confirmed that a pan-European competition remains the goal of the IRB," said the Irish version of the press release.
No mention of a commitment to ERC continuing as a steady hand on the tiller. Indeed no mention at all of the organisation that has run the show since Tom Kiernan, the late Vernon Pugh and Marcel Martin pumped up the balls and got them into play in 1995.
If you juxtaposed this with the offers from the Anglo-French that had landed on the desks of the Pro12 clubs, also last week, then it became easier to see a different sort of future.
Those offers outlined a new pan-European operation, with two competitions running side by side, and each comprising 20 clubs. The wedge per club would be circa €2m. Qualification would be clean: for example the top six clubs in the Pro12 would qualify for the premier competition – to be known for some reason as the Rugby Champions Cup – and the bottom six would slip into the second tier.
If you were sitting behind a desk in any of those Pro12 League clubs and saw something down on paper which looked like a viable road ahead, then your faith in the future of ERC might have wavered. The background music was consistent too: club chairmen from across the water coming out in an ordered sequence saying that ERC was dead, so if you're a Celt and you want to have an arse in your trousers this time next year then you'd better park it pronto on the new train leaving town.
And so the Celts' fears of being exposed, and left behind, have grown. It was interesting that the prompt for the Celts and Italians to issue their statements had come from French federation president Pierre Camou who had earlier reiterated that no one from his country would be going anywhere without the approval of head office.
Rather than bang the same old drum however, the Celts and Italians suggested openness to a new order.
The voting structure on that new order would have to be radically shifted to get the Anglo-French back to the table, which of course brings into view turkeys with polling cards.
Perhaps mediator Graeme Mew, who is up to speed now on the comings and goings in this saga, will have a take on this. If he doesn't then the old guard will fall further behind in the battle for control of Europe.