Clubs must realise they have to play ball
April 11, 2007
"'Disappointment' - it's a great word to use when you are trying to take the moral high ground." John Taylor reports for scrum.com
The Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby Ltd have used it liberally over the past few months in their ongoing dispute over the future of the Heineken Cup but yesterday's gem from PRL took the biscuit.
'PRL clubs have noted with some disappointment the commentary over the weekend most of which does not accurately reflect the current situation.'
Yes it did! The 'disappointment' comes from the fact that PRL did not come out of it very well. They went on to nit-pick about the use of the word 'boycott.' (We are at the end of an eight year agreement so how can it be a boycott? - Pathetic.)
This was followed by more moral posturing - 'at no stage have we asked for more money but we want equal recognition and status in any new agreement' and then it became laughable. 'PRL has made it clear that it supports a new European Competition inclusive of all countries and under IRB governance which reflects the interests of all parties.'
Sorry guys, the IRB has already made its position clear. You get on and manage your clubs - you already receive all the money from the Heineken Cup - and let the national governing bodies like the RFU and the FFR run the game in their respective countries and report back to us.
Most ordinary fans are outraged. The sea of flags at all the Heineken Cup quarter-finals showed a passionate, vibrant following for the competition. They don't want a new competition they just want this one to go on from strength to strength.
It is the lifeblood of the game below international level in Ireland, Wales and Scotland and, in reality England too. France is the real problem but the stroppy English club owners see this as yet another chance to bloody RFU noses in the 11 year civil war that has gone on since the game turned professional.
The situation in France is very different to England. Serge Blanco is seen by the IRB and the FFR as the villain of the piece but French club rugby is going through such a boom that they genuinely do not need the Heineken Cup as much as the four home nations. Virtually every game is a sell-out, not just in the hotspots like Toulouse, Biarritz and Stade Francais but right across the division. Even second division La Rochelle, famous for oysters and sailing but not rugby, attracts more than 10,000 to home games.
Paris used to be a rugby desert except for internationals but now Stade Francais hire Stade de France for matches against Biarritz.
Toulouse regularly pull 35,000 and crowds in excess of 20,000 are commonplace. That is why Blanco insists there can be no compromising the Top 14 - their equivalent of the Guinness Premiership.
It is no excuse but they do have a genuine fixture congestion problem next season. It is, of course, also a power struggle. Blanco says he has no interest in becoming the next President of the French Federation but even those close to him do not quite believe it and Bernard Lapasset, the present incumbent is known to have ambitions to succeed Syd Millar at the IRB after the World Cup.
Whilst the French clubs are genuinely independent of the Federation where funding is concerned - their huge playing budgets are more than covered by gate receipts and sponsorship Guinness Premiership clubs can only dream about - their English counterparts are not.
Although they constantly complain (and produce meaningless figures to show that the RFU does not invest as much in the professional game as other sports) they do receive between PS1.1million and PS1.9 million per club - under an iniquitous carve up agreed among themselves that allots more of the pot to the more established clubs - from Twickenham. Without that funding most of them would be bankrupt and none of them would have been able to grow their businesses to their present level.
I am full of admiration for the way the professional game has developed in England and I accept that would not have been possible without the input of some major entrepreneurs who also love their rugby. They have often been a breath of fresh air in a scrum of fetid old farts but they cannot hijack the game for their own ends.
They have to realise that it is international rugby that still provides the funds to keep the professional game going in England and that they have a responsibility to the game and the players in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Without the Heineken Cup professional rugby would have to contract in those countries and that would not be in the interests of England or France.
The Heineken Cup has never been more popular and the standard of rugby has never been higher - it is the people's competition and it is simply too precious for us to allow it to be destroyed because of a power struggle that seemingly has no end. If the clubs pull-out they cannot expect any funding next year.