As the European Cup saga rumbles on, one of the more outspoken Directors of Rugby in the English game, Leicester’s Richard Cockerill, gave his thoughts at the Heineken Cup launch yesterday.
Cockerill stated bluntly that, should the RFU follow the example of the FFR (Fédération Française de Rugby) and denounce the new breakaway tournament, it would be to the detriment of the England national team.
The RFU’s silence in this drama has been deafening, as the unions of every other nation involved have made statements opposing the Rugby Champions Cup.
Cockerill is insistent, however, that should it come to a club v country row in England (with the possibility of being barred from playing for your country if you take part in anyway breakaway tournament a real possibility), the players would side with their clubs.
“The players are contracted to their clubs and the Premiership is their bread and butter,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“Hypothetically, if they tried to exclude every Premiership player, then they would do well to sell-out Twickenham. Try going to the 2015 Rugby World Cup without any players, that would work well, wouldn’t it? Leicester fully supports what the English clubs are trying to do.”
Cockerill also bemoaned the pressures faced by English clubs to qualify for the Heineken Cup in its current format.
“There is pressure on us every week to win to ensure that we qualify for next season so that budgets can be set and season tickets sold,” he said. “Why is it alright for a Leicester or a Bath not to be involved in a Heineken Cup and it is not alright for a Munster or Leinster not to be involved?”
It has been a week of Heineken Cup launches – usually exciting affairs – that have had a huge shadow over them in the form of the continued irresolution of next year’s European competition. The English and French clubs are adamant that they will not rejoin the Heineken Cup in its current format.
Roger Lewis, chief executive of the WRU, has, however, offered himself as a go-between for the warring factions of the Anglo-French clubs and the ERC. Aware of the calamitous consequences for the Welsh regions that no European Cup involvement would have, he is choosing his position carefully, as the futures of his top players (the likes of Sam Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny) hang in the balance.
“We need players of the calibre of Sam and Leigh to be playing in Wales,” Lewis said.
“I will do absolutely everything I can to ensure that they stay here. Keeping them here would be more difficult without a Heineken Cup. We are in danger of losing the plot here. We have the finest competition in world rugby under threat and it is incumbent on everyone to fight for it. Let us sort the competition format and let us sort the monies. We believe in meritocracy and we believe in a fair distribution of monies.”
At Monday’s launch battle lines were firmly drawn up. ERC Chief Executive Derek McGrath, after lots of talk about how well the ERC have done in building the value of the tournament thus far, finally got to the nub of the issue.
“The one reason why they [the English clubs] do not want ERC to continue is to frustrate our Sky contract,” said McGrath, whose organisation have signed the rights to Sky despite the English clubs announcing their own deal with BT Sport.
“That is very clear to us. It is not about performance, it is not about what the competition is, it is about winding down a company [ERC] in the expectation that contracts will fall away. Clearly, that is not something ERC is prepared to accept.”
That seems to be in complete contrast to his, and the ERC’s statements, that everyone is working toward a common goal – resolution. This is all getting terribly, terribly tiresome, but sadly a positive outcome seems to be further away than ever.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images