European truce essential for World Cup prospects
December 10, 2013
A tug-of-war is engulfing the future of European rugby © Getty Images
Mark McCafferty is putting a brave face on it but beneath that urbane, almost emotionless façade, he must be feeling pretty bruised. All his best laid plans for a new European 'Club' Championship were built on assurances from the French clubs that they were solidly behind their English counterparts as they set out to break the stranglehold of ERC but that support has crumbled in the face of politics and pressure from their governing body, the French Rugby Federation (FFR).
He has a right to feel badly let-down and must be cursing his luck as the Heineken Cup matches last weekend captured the headlines and proved yet again what a vibrant and important role it plays in European rugby. But dig a little deeper and it is plain for all to see it does indeed need a major overhaul and revamp.
'The Heineken Cup has lost its magic'' is the headline in the Daily Telegraph this morning despite Connacht's heroics at the weekend. An exaggeration, maybe, but not totally without foundation. The standard of rugby generally was not the step-up from the national leagues that the top players need if we are to bridge the gap with the southern hemisphere. The tournament needs to be on a par with Super Rugby - the staple diet south of the equator - but falls well short.
However, the Telegraph's assertion that 'English clubs will not be missing much when they boycott Europe next year' does not stand-up either. McCafferty's statement that staying out of Europe would not be a disaster as the PRL clubs will have a financial buffer to see them through because of the extra money from BT Sport misses the point altogether.
It would have a disastrous effect on the structure of the season - there would simply not be enough meaningful fixtures and the ideas that have been put forward to fill the gap are pie in the sky even if they appear attractive at first glance.
One suggested solution is to expand the number of English clubs in the Premiership to 14 and persuade the Welsh regions to join as well.
That would give you an 18 team league which sounds great - 17 meaningful home fixtures instead of 11 would be a massive boost for the English clubs who do not qualify for the Heineken and a partial return to the days before national leagues when Anglo-Welsh derbies were some of the most popular matches in the calendar for clubs both sides of the border has great potential.
The first problem is where do you find two more English clubs capable of competing in the Premiership? There is already a growing divide - just compare the gates week in week out between the top six and those in the basement - and only Bristol of the clubs in the Championship look as if they might have the resources to join the top flight.
Getting the Welsh on board makes a lot of sense, geographically and financially. Games in England would be far more accessible for Welsh supporters and it is obvious from the declining gates that the Celtic League in its present form has totally failed. When Harlequins used to play Llanelli (Scarlets) it was always their biggest gate of the season and on a number of occasions they moved the match to Twickenham because the Stoop was not big enough.
Brian O'Driscoll rolled back the years to put in a hugely impressive performance at the weekend © PA Photos
But, is it going to happen? I very much doubt it. The regions are hugely reliant on the subsidy from the Welsh Rugby Union to stay in business and relations between the two seem to be at an all-time low. They have a meeting on Wednesday but nobody expects a resolution to the problems and an uneasy truce seems the best we can hope for - hardly conducive to a radical rethink and a major new initiative.
The other suggested alternative, mischievously promoted by the Saracens' connections - bringing South African teams into the mix - is not even worth serious consideration. First, it would have to be the lesser sides or second teams because the top provinces would not dream of abandoning Super Rugby and second, it would mean changing the South African season.
Everybody now needs to look at the bigger picture. England is hosting the World Cup in 2015 and Stuart Lancaster needs his top players to be exposed to the highest possible level of competition next season. The Heineken Cup is a vital part of that. It is arguably even more important for the other home nations because their domestic rugby is at a lower level so it is of paramount importance that a solution is found that satisfies the needs of the players.
The battle to decide who runs European 'club' rugby could still be a long one but we now need a truce to ensure there is a meaningful tournament next year. The alternative is meltdown and that will have a serious impact on preparing for the World Cup. Gentlemen, if you want to see the Webb Ellis Trophy going south yet again without a fight, you are going the right way about it.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist
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