Tuesday 23 January 2018

Tony Ward: Irish game braced for doomsday scenario as bullies hold all cards

If Leinster had no Heineken Cup to play for, would players like Sean O'Brien leave these shores?
If Leinster had no Heineken Cup to play for, would players like Sean O'Brien leave these shores?
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Back in 1999, Ulster lifted the European Cup in a season when the English clubs boycotted the competition. Minus the English, it was a greatly devalued tournament.

That Ulster emerged the best of the rest was of course a great achievement, but without the English, it was a triumph forever tainted.

That is the context to the confirmation that the Heineken Cup we have grown to love will be no more.

Perhaps there is an element of the bully-boys – Premiership Rugby and LNR (Top 14) – walking off with the match ball, but, like it or lump it, that is the financial reality of rugby in this part of the world.

The English and French have sabre-rattled in the past, but that phase is now over, with meeting after meeting getting nowhere.

The proposal is for a 20-team competition (as opposed to the current 24), with qualification based on merit – the top six teams in the English Premiership, French Top 14 and Pro12, in addition to the Amlin Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup winners from the previous season.

Blank

On that point, there can be no issue. If it means the odd season without an Irish, Italian, Scottish or Welsh presence in the main event, then so be it. Far preferable to have the occasional blank in Europe than to have no Europe at all.

England and France still need their Celtic brethren on board for an all-inclusive competition, but nowhere near as much as the Celtic cousins and Italy need the Anglo-French cordiale.

There is no clear evidence, but given that the Anglo-Welsh LV=Cup is already in existence, the suspicion is that, when push comes to shove for 2014-15, the Welsh could well jump ship if the other Celtic nations refuse to join the proposed new competition.

Could that then lead to the Welsh regions becoming part of the English Premiership, thereby leaving the Irish, Scots and Italians out on a limb?

From an Irish perspective, it would, indeed, be a doomsday scenario – just as footballers crave the Champions League, so do rugby players crave the Heineken Cup.

The financial constraints on the Irish provinces would be massive.

Jonny Sexton's move to France has paved the way for others to follow suit – and given an Anglo-French European initiative minus an Irish presence, what odds a mass exodus like that to England when professional rugby first kicked in, back in the '90s?

One thing is clear – however righteous the stand, the Pro12 desire for a Heineken Cup that represents the whole of Europe by way of guaranteed entry (specifically for the Scots and Italians) is no longer up for discussion.

The English/French guaranteed breakaway tournament, announced, has ensured that.

The French confirmation of total unity with the English leaves little room for manoeuvre at today's meeting in Dublin.

There may be six nations involved, but only two have the clout to bring about this backs-to-the-wall situation.

England and France need the Heineken Cup, but nowhere near as much as Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

With rumours rife of Irish stars like Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip moving to France, that should bring a pragmatic approach when Peter Boyle and Philip Browne sit down with the English and French representatives for this Dublin summit.

We are not so much on the brink as way beyond it and however unpalatable, the perceived bullies appear to hold all the cards.

Whatever else, this sure ain't sabre-rattling.

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