Heineken Cup chiefs admit English breakaway ‘would be unthinkable’
THE organisers of the Heineken Cup admit it would be "almost unthinkable" for English clubs to pull out of the tournament and form their own breakaway competition.
Last month the future of European club rugby was plunged in to disarray following an announcement by Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL), who represent English top-flight clubs, that they had agreed a €190m deal with BT to show domestic and European matches from 2014 onwards.
The announcement infuriated the European Rugby Cup (ERC) - which runs the Heineken Cup and had already announced a separate TV deal with Sky Sports.
Meetings between the two warring factions have failed to result in any deal, raising fears English teams could seek to break away from the competition and create their own version without their Celtic counterparts.
ERC chief executive Derek McGrath played down worries about such a scenario yesterday, and hinted that European rugby's governing body were willing to make some sort of compromise.
"It is almost unthinkable that could happen," McGrath said.
"I think everyone knows how important the tournament has become in every single country.
"It (having English teams pull out) is not something we are focused on in any way.
"We have a two-year notice period for a reason, which is to allow us to understand where we might be going to.
"That is an open opportunity to allow people to understand what we might do differently."
Changing the format of the Heineken Cup, and its sister competition the Amlin Challenge Cup, is certainly what PRL are after.
The main problem the 14 Aviva Premiership clubs have with the competition is that they have to compete in a domestic league where there is a threat of relegation whereas the Celtic teams in the RaboDirect PRO 12 league do not.
That has allowed Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Italian teams to rest players in the league so they can field their best XV in the Heineken Cup.
McGrath refused to rule out reallocating some of the Celtic countries' qualifying places to English teams as a bartering tool to get the PRL to drop its deal and commit to the Heineken Cup.
"There are no guarantees and that goes to any country," McGrath said.
"What we need to be very sure of is that every stakeholder is represented round the table.
"This is not a crisis. We are very early on in the process and are putting on the table what is up for discussion.
"We have a two-year notice period and there has been interest in trying to get this advanced.
"Nobody more than I would like to have this sorted out but we have to give it time."