Thursday 22 February 2018

Tony Ward: Time to call English clubs' bluff

Everyone will lose out unless this breakaway bid is halted

The captains of the British clubs who competed in last season's Heineken Cup
The captains of the British clubs who competed in last season's Heineken Cup
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In almost every argument, there are the good guys and the bad guys, with those in the neutral corner left to determine the true lie of the land.

Well, following another weekend's propaganda in the ongoing fight to control European professional club rugby, I think it's been a good few days for European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC).

The hard graft is only beginning and is without doubt long overdue, but the appointment of an independent mediator, announced on Friday, to squeeze out a new agreement for the European competitions is a sensible move.

Late in the day it may be, but it's better late than never.

Canadian lawyer Graham Mew has been brought in and handed what appears a gargantuan task, given where we're now at.


The English Premiership Rugby League (PRL) bullies and their French Ligue Nationale de Rugby counterparts (LNR) have already announced their intention to form an Anglo-French-led European tournament irrespective of what ERC might come up with at this point in the negotiating process.

Once English and French rugby went down the route of clubs contracting players when the game went open, this full-on collision was always set to happen.

Whereas the Pro12 consists of centrally contracted Union or Federation players, the English and French clubs, though in theory governed by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and Federation Francaise de Rugby (FFR), in many ways do their own thing.

It is for that reason the stance taken by the respective governing bodies over the coming weeks and months will be central to where professional rugby in the northern hemisphere goes from here – because as things stand, we are heading for an implosion at the top of the Richter scale.

It is difficult to comprehend that the best thing to happen to rugby since the game went professional is currently on a path to self-destruction.

This is not a rugby union/rugby league type split when pay-for-play first arrived; rather it is a road to madness in which everyone is set to lose out in some way.

Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of PRL, has claimed that we are already beyond the point of no return, with other teams (from Pro12) committed to joining the PRL-proposed new competition. How much of that is bluff only he knows.

In support of this breakaway tournament gathering momentum, we've been assured by Quentin Smith, the chairman of Premiership Rugby, that "they do not expect the FFR or RFU to stand in the clubs' way".

Thankfully that has already been exposed for the bluff it is, with the FFR reacting strongly and assertively when declaring they will oppose any Anglo-French plans to establish a replacement competition.

According to McCafferty, the Rugby Champions Cup will start next season with unnamed but abundant Pro12 presence. Surprise, surprise, he is apparently keeping the names of the clubs/provinces/ regions/districts confidential, yet here is a man looking to control the future of professional rugby who can't get to his chosen media outlets quickly enough when he has another boastful threat to make.

If you want greater cause for concern then look no further than his weekend statement that the proposed Rugby Champions Cup would be overseen by an "organising body of some sort – it doesn't need to be as big, unwieldy or institutionalised as ERC".

The ERC may not be perfect, but the Dublin-based organisation is making a fair fist of running the best rugby competition on the planet.

Yes, they have been lax, arrogant even in their reaction to PRL and LNR to date, but which rugby bank would I trust with my hard-earned dosh going forward? It's a no-brainer.

The decision to engage Mew has come late in the day but is without doubt the right call, with October 23 the chosen date for further and, one suspects, exhaustive negotiations.

If meritocracy in terms of qualification is the major issue and not money or power, then surely a means whereby each of the four Pro12 countries can be guaranteed at least one team involved per year can be embraced.

Even if it means Edinburgh competing with Glasgow or Treviso battling Zebre at the basement of the Pro12 for a Heineken Cup place the following season, then so be it.

A simple top six as in the Top 14 or English Premiership cannot and must not represent the way for the Celtic nations and Italy to go.

IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset hit the nail on the head when he said: "The IRB believes in a truly European competition and strongly urges all stakeholders to return to the table under a fully independent process for important and urgent discussions to work towards achieving a sensible resolution that is in the best interests of the European game."

The IRB and FFR have now declared their hand. What is required is equally unequivocal support from the RFU. Any ambivalence on the part of the English governing body and we are in trouble again.

The appointment of an independent arbitrator offers no magic wand, but it does present a way forward, one that offers transparency at last to a hugely confused rugby world.

As one contributor observed: "PRL supported by LNR have declared war on rugby. We have to fight with everything we have. If we give in it's the long goodbye or slow death of rugby in our countries. We are fighting for our very existence."

That might sound melodramatic to some, but strip away the media spin and the pro game we have known since 1995 is facing its greatest threat.

The next move is up to the RFU. With their support, the independent arbitrator will be sufficiently armed to meet the demands from all sides. This is one conundrum he, and by extension ERC, must untangle. For the sake of the game, they must not fail.

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