Welsh set for court battle
Regions insist breakaway necessary for their survival, writes Paul Rees
The Welsh Rugby Union are determined to keep the Heineken Cup going in some form next season, even though the four Welsh regions and the English Premiership clubs have struck an alliance not to take part. That stance increases the likelihood of the dispute over who controls what in European club rugby being decided by a high court judge.
The regions and the English clubs want the Heineken Cup replaced by the Rugby Champions Cup, a tournament in which the right to negotiate commercial contracts would be held by the teams taking part, not the unions. The Rugby Football Union's chief executive, Ian Ritchie, is trying to persuade his Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts to enter formal negotiations.
The WRU sent a letter yesterday to its 320 member clubs explaining its plan of action after the regions failed to meet a December 31 deadline to continue its participation agreement for another five years. The union insists the Heineken Cup -- or European Cup as it referred to it -- will continue, even though Premiership Rugby has said its clubs will not take part and the French sides will do so only if the English are included.
The WRU will tomorrow present the four regions with an amended participation agreement and give them 10 days to enter into discussions. As the union is committed to the Heineken Cup, talks will be brief as the regions say that playing in the tournament would cut overall income at a time when French clubs are about to sign a television deal worth more than the annual turnover of the WRU.
The regions decided not to sign the agreement last week after forming their alliance with Premiership Rugby. They both want the Rugby Champions Cup to supplement their league fixtures, worth an estimated £1m more for each English, Welsh and Irish team that takes part. But if there is no agreement by the end of the month, they will set up an Anglo-Welsh league from next season in a five-year deal with BT Sport.
The regions and the clubs have taken legal advice and are prepared to go to court to win the right to organise the tournament.
"It is a shame it has taken a year for the WRU to put something forward and have some dialogue about the agreement," said Andrew Hore, the Ospreys' chief executive. "The regions get asked a lot of questions about our governance, but we have made changes and when are we going to get some governance from our own organisation? We have delivered a way of bringing in new revenue and it has been ignored."
The regions believe the WRU is preparing to offer players central contracts covering four months of the year and to subcontract them out for the rest.
The English clubs will not take on anyone on that basis and, when Northampton were last month fined £60,000 for allowing the wing George North to insert a clause in his contract allowing for release for Wales matches outside official international windows, Premiership Rugby warned that any repeat would not only incur a greater fine but the potential loss of league points.
Mark Davies, the Scarlets' chief executive, said: "We have to wait and see what the WRU is offering, but if the response does not address the problems we face, we will have to manage our own businesses and make our own decisions accordingly. Our priority is to survive."