Peter Bills: Italian fury at 'insult' after Magners League snub
The Celtic League countries were last night accused of greed and insulting Italy after details finally emerged of the financial demands they made for the Italians to participate in the Magners League.
It was revealed that Celtic Rugby, which runs the Magners League, insisted on a whopping annual E3m pledge -- E9m guaranteed for a three-year deal -- in which two Italian clubs, probably Benetton Treviso and Viadana, would join the competition.
Furthermore, in an act which enraged the Italian Federation, Celtic Rugby insisted on a clause that would have allowed them to kick the Italian representatives out of the tournament after three years, if they so wished.
Conversely, Italy was offered no such right to demand the expulsion of any of the other countries.
An Italian official who insisted on anonymity said: "We feel insulted by these demands. It is quite clear that the Celtic countries are not interested in helping us by having two of our teams in the Celtic League."
The Italians baulked at paying such a high sum in these tough economic times. They were willing to go to E1.5m a year and then make up the difference if they could find money from new sponsors in Italy. But apparently, that offer was not enough for the Irish, Scottish and Welsh.
The timing of this bad feeling could hardly be worse. Italy come to Dublin to play Ireland on Saturday and their officials seem sure to be smarting over what they regard as a snub.
A source said: "Under this proposal, after three years, the original Celtic teams could expel Italy if they wished. This did not apply to anyone else, which Italy considered an insult, as Italy was not being welcomed as an equal partner.
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"Italy was very keen to join the Celtic League from a rugby point of view, but felt that the financial guarantees were too onerous in these economic times."
But the long-term cost to the game, both in Italy and on a worldwide scale, could eventually dwarf the sums demanded by the Celtic countries.
Franco Smith, Treviso's South African coach, warned that unless Italian clubs gained access to a tournament of higher standards, the game in Italy was likely to retreat.
"It could even go back to being semi-professional," he said -- and that would mean that the chances of Italy being competitive in the Six Nations in the future would be virtually nil.
"Italian rugby is at the crossroads. Sponsors want to get involved but they want to see something new. There is a big feeling here that the rugby must improve and be more competitive here if it is ever to go forward.
"The big worry at the moment is that it is obvious from the Italy U-20 side that there is no next wave of Italian players coming through. Playing flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half against England last year underlined that fact.
"So if the authorities want real growth in the Italian game, they must find a way to participate in the Celtic League. It is the only option. If they are serious about going forward, they must keep negotiating and trying everything to get into this league."
Smith said he feared for the future of the game in Italy without a step up to higher playing-levels.
"Rugby here will be a disaster in the future," he warned. "It might even have to go back to a semi-professional game. A lot of clubs are under financial pressure and if the rest become semi-pro, why would one or two like ours continue to spend a lot of money if there is no future?"
Smith called on the IRB to step in and help make up the financial shortfall.
"If they are serious about growing the game worldwide, as they claim to be, I cannot think of a better cause anywhere than ensuring Italian clubs play in the Celtic League," he said.
"This is about the growth of rugby in the whole world, so it is really necessary for the IRB to step in."
It seems increasingly likely that the only way the impasse could be broken is for the IRB to become involved. If they sit on their hands and refuse to act with financial help, it would bring into question their whole self-proclaimed strategy of trying to expand and improve the game worldwide, especially among the second-tier nations.