Ireland facing player drain as Heineken Cup faces extinction
WITH a major question mark surrounding the future of the Heineken Cup, the threat of Ireland's top players heading abroad is hanging over Irish rugby.
As the board of the European Rugby Cup (ERC) faces a crisis meeting in Dublin today, there's real concern among the provinces that there could be a mass exodus of the stars.
This follows the declaration by the leading clubs in England and France that they intend to set up a new competition to rival the Heineken Cup from next season.
There has been widespread speculation that Clermont Auvergne are already chasing the services of Leinster pair Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip. The restructuring of Europe's top club tournament would give the big-spending French and English clubs increased financial muscle to prise away leading Irish stars.
Premiership Rugby and their French counterparts, the LNR, last night moved to break the deadlock over the future of European club rugby that had left next season's kick-off shrouded in uncertainty.
In a joint move, the organising bodies of both leagues announced that from the 2014-15 season their clubs would be participating in a new Anglo-French tournament, having served notice to leave the ERC accord in June last year.
The English and French clubs left the door open for other teams to join the new competition and all but closed the door on any return to the ERC, which is likely to spark an angry reaction from the Celtic and Italian clubs at today's meeting.
The demand of the English and French clubs has been an overhaul of the Heineken Cup, including a reduction in the number of teams from 24 to 20 and an equal three-way split in revenue between the Premiership, the French Top 14 and the Pro12.
These demands were rejected by the Celtic and Italian clubs and the new season has begun with no sign of agreement.
No one from the IRFU or the Irish provinces was willing to comment on the statement released by Premiership Rugby ahead of today's scheduled ERC board meeting.
It is anticipated a statement outlining a new round of negotiations between the various stakeholders will be forthcoming after that Board meeting.
Meanwhile, Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray will not travel with Munster to Italy for their Pro12 games against Zebre and Treviso. The Reds are taking a 33-man party for their 10-day trip.