CHRIS KIRWAN SAYS: Easy to sympathise with Anglo-French frustrations
8:56am Thursday 12th September 2013 in Dragons
NEWPORT Gwent Dragons will be the odd ones out when this year's Heineken Cup, potentially the final one, starts next month.
The tournament – a supposedly elite competition – will feature 11 of the RaboDirect Pro12 teams.
Zebre, who have not won any of their 29 games since their inception, will not only lock horns with Toulouse and Saracens in Pool Three but with Connacht, who only qualified because Leinster won the Amlin Challenge Cup.
The Galway-based province, Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh all lost more games than they won in the Pro12 last season while the Scarlets, Zebre and Edinburgh suffered Heineken Cup whitewashes.
No wonder the English and French have reached the end of their tether.
"We've run out of road," said Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty after the failure to come to an agreement over changing the format of the Heineken Cup.
Tuesday's news that they plan to form a breakaway tournament should come as no surprise; the ERC have stuck fingers in their ears for far too long.
They have refused to budge an inch and are now suffering the consequences.
In 2006 Serge Blanco, Biarritz great and then president of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, expressed their frustrations.
"The omnipotence of an ERC board which chokes everything is finished," he told the Guardian. "It refuses to be accountable and we do not want to submit to its will.
"We have been very well-behaved children up to now, but that is finished. There will be a revolution if they do not listen to us. I am sounding the alarm before it is too late."
The sabre-rattling has gone on for years and years.
The demands had been on the table for some time – trim the Heineken Cup, strengthen the Amlin Challenge Cup, qualification based on Pro12 finishes and divide the money three ways between the leagues rather than between the unions.
The split has been coming but the blazers in Dublin, happy with how things were, banked on the English and French backing down.
"There has to be a European Cup next season. It's too good to lose," said Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis before Tuesday's developments.
In an ideal world the English and French would have a truly European tournament but they don't need that half as badly as the Celtic nations.
They want a genuinely elite competition and, with big financial backing from BT Sport, seem to hold all the cards.
This is professional sport, when has it been anything other than money, greed and power?
The notion that a tournament would suffer because there are no Italian whipping boys in it is farcical, akin to saying baseball's World Series is cheapened because Bristol Badgers (yes, they exist) are not involved.
The door isn't closed for the Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Italian sides and life would be grim for the regions without European competition.
We know it, the English know it and the French know it.
The Dragons, Ospreys, the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues are already struggling with empty pockets and sparse crowds.
They need more meaningful games and the English proposals would certainly give the Pro12 a much-needed shot in the arm.
The ball is in the Celtic nations' court with the Premiership not particularly bothered if they join up.
"We would prefer them to join, but we can't sit forever waiting for it to happen," said McCafferty.
"Certainly, an Anglo-French competition — which would take place over nine weekends — would be a very strong competition commercially."
Yesterday the ERC released a statement that there would be more talks and "that European club competitions must be organised by ERC, and that any purported cross-border club tournaments needed the approval both of the IRB (International Rugby Board), and of the relevant Unions who are shareholders of ERC."
That's all well and good but it looks like the English and French have the financial clout to do things their own way, and that is extremely worrying for those in Wales that don't.
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