This week, Toulon and their maverick President Mourad Boudjellal may have rained on what, until now, was a rather stoic and determined parade led by the Anglo-French European breakaway effort. Boudjellal, unhappy with Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR)’s decision to introduce further restrictions on the number of non-French-nationalised players in Top14 match-day squads, has retaliated in kind by announcing that his club will be participating in the 2014/15 Heineken Cup – should the tournament itself survive.
There are a number of issues that spring to mind following this revelation. Firstly, one must query whether Boudjellal has the say-so on which, if any, cross-border competition the Heineken Cup champions will take part in. Though he is the President, and very much the public face of the club, questions are raised over just who contributes the greatest investment, or who, for want of a better phrase, “runs the show” at Toulon.
Secondly, it seems Boudjellal is less concerned with world rugby’s greatest club tournament, and more so with the continuation of his feud with LNR. The motives of his announcement appear to be aimed at riling the body, and unnerving the joint breakaway group rather than striking a blow for the preservation of the Heineken Cup.
The incident itself is indicative of the sorry, unsavoury mess in which European rugby finds itself. A phrase comprising the words “toys”, “out” and “pram” springs to mind. Boudjellal, finding the game is not proceeding in his favour, may be accused of picking up his metaphorical football and storming off home.
Meanwhile, Premiership Rugby (PRL) Chairman Quentin Smith claimed this week in a BBC interview that a number of Pro12 clubs have privately expressed interest in joining the newly-formed Rugby Champions Cup (the alternative cross-border tournament set up by PRL and LNR), but are fearful of standing up against the joint statements released by their unions.
Those joint statements confirmed that Scottish, Irish, Welsh nor Italian clubs will be participating in any cross-border tournament without the endorsement of the sport’s governing body, the International Rugby Board (IRB).
However, it is clear from comments in the media that the respective Celtic or Pro12 unions are open to change, whether that means sacrificing an automatic qualification spot, or a chunk of the cash they receive for participation. For instance, Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) Chief Mark Dodson has stated publicly, and on numerous occasions, that the SRU would be willing to forego one of their two guaranteed pool stage places to conform to the added “meritocracy” ideals so treasured by the Anglo-French bodies.
So why on earth has it taken so long for the powers-that-be to acknowledge the desire for change, and the apparent willingness from the unions to negotiate? This is where ERC (European Rugby Cup), the body that runs the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups, must take their share of the blame.
The English and French sides, unhappy with the qualification format and distribution of revenue, announced their intention to leave the competition some two years ago. Two whole years, and yet rather than attempt to bring the relevant stakeholders to discussion, ERC opted to call the Anglo-French bluff. That seems more than a tad foolish given the money generated by both nations, even more so now that it looks as if they were not, in fact, bluffing after all.
Now, amidst the official appointments of independent mediators, the back-and-forth mud-slinging in the media more synonymous with US Presidential elections than the sport of rugby union, and the behind-closed-doors dealings of officials and chiefs, it appears the time to talk has finally arrived.
Only PRL and LNR aren’t interested in talking anymore, will not be attending the arranged meeting on October 23rd, and are adamant in their resolve to push on with the Rugby Champions Cup, with an open invitation to those who wish to board the bandwagon. This meeting was convened a good month in advance, when the waves of discontent began to buffet those in the ERC wheelhouse. ERC urgency at it’s very best.
Whether Boudjellal’s bullish statement of intent weakens that Anglo-French resolve remains to be seen, but surely the news that club rugby’s most illustrious and recognisable member will not be participating strikes a major blow to the new competition.
With what looks certain to be the last-ever Heineken Cup played under its current format kicking off last weekend, the event once more demonstrated why it is without parallel in the club game. Underdogs Connacht, Edinburgh, Scarlets and Gloucester all turned in memorable performances, or recorded impressive victories over more fancied rivals. The quality of play was, on the whole, excellent and entertaining.
Plenty of the clubs that caught the eye may not qualify for the premier tournament, under whichever setup, next season. Whatever the outcome of next week’s meeting, that special and unique Europe-wide representation within the competition must be retained, however, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent than at present.
The exact nature of the upshot of the furore presently surrounding European rugby is up for debate. With neither union nor IRB backing, the Rugby Champions Cup in itself seems unlikely to get off the ground, particularly minus Toulon. The hope must be that the breakaway group, riled by ERC’s stubbornness and the allure of a lucrative BT Sport television deal can be reined in, and a compromise that safeguards the future of cross-border Euro competition can be reached.
There may still be a long and treacherous path to navigate before that prospect becomes reality. The saga has already become tiresome and frustrating in the space of barely a few months, but the apparent compliance of the PRO12 unions to bring about a forward-thinking resolution is encouraging.
For now, European rugby continues to stumble onwards in a state of disarray, but Toulon’s declaration coupled with next week’s meeting should accelerate the progress towards a final solution.
By Jamie Lyall – Follow Jamie on Twitter @JLyall93
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images