RFU favours pan-European competition
September 17, 2013
RFU boss Ian Ritchie believes any replacements for the Heineken Cup needs to include all the European stakeholders © Getty Images
Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie believes any alternative to the Heineken Cup should 'embrace all of Europe' and called for a swift resolution to the row over the future of the competition.
This season's Heineken Cup is set to be the last unless a new agreement can be reached on the tournament format and the distribution of revenue beyond the forthcoming campaign. The leading clubs from England and France are demanding changes to the qualification criteria that currently guarantees places for teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales regardless of their league position and they are also targeting a larger share of the tournament income that better reflects their commercial clout.
A series of meetings between European rugby's stakeholders - including representatives from the unions and the teams - have so far failed to produce a workable resolution and frustrated at the lack of progress, the English and French clubs have tabled their plans to form their own tournament.
In the latest of a series of public tit-for-tat exchanges, European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisers of both the Heineken Cup and the second tier Amlin Challenge Cup, insist that such a tournament would not get the required approval of the respective unions.
Speaking at an event to mark two years until the start of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Ritchie would not be drawn on his organisation's likely action should a new tournament be tabled and instead stressed his desire to see all parties work together and take their quarrel behind closed doors.
"I think it is important for the game as a whole that we get these negotiations settled," said Ritchie. "I think they have to be dealt with a matter of urgency and in my experience the best way of reaching a solution is to do these things in private."
Ritchie reiterated his support for the English clubs' quest for change but does not believe a breakaway competition is the answer. "The objectives are clear. We want to see a meritocratic competition - not only in terms of the competitive element but also financial distribution - we need to achieve that," he said.
He added: "It strikes me, the definition of a European competition means you have got to have most of Europe participating - so our view is that we would seek to achieve a European competition that involves clubs from Scotland, Wales, Ireland France and Italy. We are all trying to grow the game, and if there is an opportunity for people to aspire to get into that then that to me seems like a perfectly sensible thing."
Ritchie sympathised with the English clubs' growing frustration having seen them dismiss attempts to resurrect talks aimed at saving Europe's premier club competition, but he believes even they know that a pan-European competition is the best answer for all.
"The RFU objective in this is a meritocratic comp that embraces all of Europe and that we find the right balance between those parties," he said. "Obviously it is important for our clubs in England and we want to support them. But it is also important for the game that there is a recognition that all of Europe needs to be involved and what we are trying to do is facilitate that," said Ritchie, who revealed he is working on a daily basis to try and bring about a resolution.
"Is it occasionally fraught? Challenging? Difficult? All of the above," he said. "I actually believe everyone has the same objective. There may be different routes, different small print - that are significant and important - but the overall objective is what we need to get to. I understand the difficulties but we are there to see if we can help bring the end objective about."
Despite the apparent gloom apparently jeopardising the future of Heineken Cup, Ritchie remains hopeful that a deal can be done to secure the competition's long-term future. "You are ever-optimistic," he said. "There are passionate, strongly-held views on all sides and I totally get that. I am ever the optimist. I also think it is sensible for all of us to get to that end conclusion - everyone recognises that, it's just a matter of which path. I hope and believe we will get to that."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.