Irish 'a cork on the tide' as English and French dictate Euro future, admits Philip Browne
A CLEAN sweep of Irish wins knocked the issues around the Heineken Cup off the agenda over the weekend as the on-pitch action took centre stage, but the future of the European competition remains shrouded in doubt.
IRFU chief executive Philip Browne yesterday estimated that losing the tournament would cost the union and the provinces an estimated €10-12m and would also represent a hit to commercial revenues, while he acknowledged that the Pro12 could also be under threat after the English Premiership approached the Welsh regions to join them.
Browne called on all concerned to "act with a little more maturity" but said he remained optimistic that a solution could be found despite admitting that Ireland remained a small player in an "ongoing battle for controlling the revenue streams".
The uncertainty over the future of both competitions will also have a knock-on effect at the negotiating table where the union are battling clubs from the Top 14 and England to keep hold of the likes of Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Conor Murray.
Across the Irish Sea, the Welsh regions are in discussions with the WRU about their own future and have yet to commit to either the Heineken Cup or the Pro12 as they face an increasing drain of talent that could see Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny become the latest to move this week.
With their discussions paramount to the Pro12 and the French having called for a review of how club rugby is run in Europe over the coming 18 months as part of a structural overhaul, there remains a long way to go before the uncertainty is lifted.
"We are on the sidelines looking on and to a certain extent that has been the case since the word go," Browne said. "Everything is going to be dictated by the English Union (RFU) and the French Union (FFR) and their clubs. The tide goes in and the tide goes out and we're a cork on the tide.
"At the moment the tide has moved towards France. But the reality is we want all the English clubs and all the French clubs involved as well.
"It is incumbent on all in European rugby to act with a little bit more maturity than we are currently appearing to do. The difficulty we have is that there are a number of club owners who have a very different position. Some of them have more money that the entire worth of international rugby -- full stop. To them this is almost personal."
Asked if the Pro12 was under threat, Browne replied: "Who knows?
"The fact of the matter is that if the Welsh clubs leave to play in England then they're not Welsh clubs anymore, they are English clubs," he said.
"So there's a fundamental governance issue in that itself which involves the FFR, the RFU, the IRB and obviously the knock-on consequences for Scotland, Ireland and Italy and ultimately to the Six Nations and international rugby need to be borne in mind as well.
"This is much bigger than Ireland, this is about European rugby and international rugby as well and it is very much about governance and control and who is going to call the shots in relation to the development of the game over the next 10 years."
Browne said the increasing wealth of the French and English clubs due to their massive television contracts should be a concern for everybody involved in the global game, but he remains optimistic about keeping the top Irish players at home.
"They're talking about a Top 14 television deal of anywhere between €65-€100m a year. If that happens I would be very concerned if I was in New Zealand, Australia or South Africa in terms of the future of the game there," he said. "I think the (Irish) players understand what the issues are.
"They also understand that the environment we operate here, both for professional rugby and for players is particularly favourable to them and to performing at the highest level in terms of international rugby.
"I think they understand that players are at the top of our priority list in terms of their welfare because we're a small nation. The difficulty is that when you follow the money, in fact you can move to fairly hard task-masters in France and England."