Sport Rugby

Saturday 24 February 2018

Tony Ward: Let's get English back on board in European Cup

It would be hollow to win European Cup without clubs like Leicester

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I'm not counting any chickens just yet, but signs are good that ERC, in conjunction with the various unions, is on the verge of hatching a new kind of egg.

Throughout this ugly ordeal, I have worried greatly for the body that has organised the best competition the game has ever seen. And that concern has been shared within ERC too.

Premiership Rugby (PRL) has made no bones about its desire to have the running of the Heineken Cup effectively taken away from the six governing bodies representing the countries involved and passed over to the clubs – specifically the English and French.

The politicking has been relentless, but once the French Federation (FFR), through its president Pierre Camou, convinced the French clubs body (LNR) that a U-turn on the Anglo-French go-it-alone bravado was essential for survival, the first chink of light appeared in what has been a very dark and scary tunnel.


We are by no means out of the woods yet, with LNR and FFR set to meet in France tomorrow, but at this point everything suggests that PRL were sold a dummy by LNR or, at best, by a segment of the French club elite.

So unless there is an extraordinary shift in the realistic stance being taken by LNR (effectively looking after their own patch and to hell with the apparent Anglo-French entente cordiale), the English are out in the wilderness.

Of course, because of the manner in which PRL and its chief executive Mark McCafferty (pictured right) have gone about their business, there will be little sympathy for the various owners and clubs central to this unedifying debacle, and to the unfortunate isolation in which the English professional game could now find itself.

While I accept that McCafferty and the various owners at the root of this attempted coup would have had little compunction sticking in the boot – demolishing ERC, looking after themselves and I presume their new-found Gallic friends – every attempt should be made to get the English back on board.

As former RFU chairman Martyn Thomas put it over the weekend when calling for McCafferty to stand down, "the practical reality is that he (McCafferty) has led the Premiership into the wilderness, so now he's got to either lead them back or they've (PRL) got to find someone else to do it."

That in a nutshell is where we are now, with the irony that almost everything PRL and LNR sought from the outset – in terms of qualification through meritocracy, the number of clubs involved, a new structure for the season and, of course, a new percentage divvy-out – is now up for discussion and change.

Indeed where ERC is at fault, and therefore responsible for much of the collective angst and uncertainty surrounding the professional game, is in displaying their own element of arrogance when kicking the Heineken can down the road.

It was a mistake not addressing structural issues with greater urgency when clearly that need was there, although one suspects the PRL agenda extended some way beyond that regardless.

Either way, we are a lot better off for what transpired in Paris last week when the Top 14 clubs opted to stay with the Heineken Cup next season.

It would appear to have put McCafferty's masterplan to rest – he is now adopting a UEFA-type line whereby unions, federations and leagues would combine for an oval-ball equivalent.

He is still at pains to point out that "the French clubs have not capitulated or abandoned us, though we would still like something to be set up next season".

This is a far from cry from the gung-ho 'our way or no way' attitude that had pervaded until now.

Only yesterday he was quoted as saying: "We knew the French Federation was putting the French clubs under a lot of pressure, but we are not pleased with the way it came out all of a sudden. I think the French clubs will say they won't play and the French Federation will tell six of them they have to play in this 20-team competition."

All very weak and underpinned by hope when measured against the dogmatic statements issued by McCafferty and PRL heretofore.

As the build-up starts to the second series of games of the Heineken Cup this weekend, it's imperative that every attempt is made (as Thomas suggests) to get the English clubs back on board.

A European cross-border tournament minus the likes of Leicester, Saracens and Northampton would be much the poorer. Ulster were the first Irish winners in 1999, but they did so minus an English presence. A great achievement, but tainted nonetheless.

For that, and myriad other reasons, let's not go the humble-pie route. European rugby needs the English, and the English need Europe. If there's to be one lasting lesson from this unedifying nightmare, let that be it.

Irish Independent

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