Cut-and-Shut Rugby Begins to Crack
Just as Irish rugby was enjoying the happy glow of having its two pre-eminent teams safely tucked up in the Heineken Cup quarter finals with a round of pool fixtures to spare, yesterday's announcement by the French clubs of their intention not to participate in next season's competition was a timely reminder of the tensions and inconsistencies which threaten the tournament.
For while the good ship Ireland plots its course on unified, consensus-calmed waters (save for the desperate cries from steerage of the clubs), in France and England the conflict between the powerful, privately owned clubs and the sport's governing bodies is becoming ever more fractious.
In Ireland, we view the Heineken Cup as the pinnacle of club rugby, and it, in turn, has been good to the game here. The explosion of interest in the sport has had as its spark and fuse the annual adventures of the provinces in the tournament. The flood of exposure it has generated for the game has spilled over to wash the once-forlorn Celtic League with its best attendances ever and the dignity, at last, of a sponsor.
But where our domestic competition politely fits around the demands of the Heineken Cup and the international game, in England and France (in particular) the sanctity of the well-established domestic leagues have long interfered with their countries' participation in the European competition and also, lately, with their national sides.
The differences in the organisation of the sport across the unions involved has meant that, despite its undoubted success, the Heineken Cup has resembled a cut-and-shut car: a vehicle comprising two completely differing parts, welded together, but vulnerable to falling apart in the event of any serious impact.
In the case of the current dispute, the blow has come from a combination of the RFU's refusal to share with the clubs control of England's say in the running of the tournament and the dilemma facing the French clubs in accomodating their heavy programme of league fixtures whilst hosting this autumn's World Cup.
In explaining the withdrawal, Serge Blanco, the former French great, now president of the LNR (the French national league body) said "unfortunately, the European Cup is the only leverage we have for our protest against an international calendar which doesn't take into account the issues and the complexities of club rugby....We deplore the blockade put on the Paris Accord negotiations by the disagreement between the English union and their clubs."
Although disapproval of the RFU's position provides the cloak of the greater good to their actions, the French clubs are undoubtedly using it to boost the position of their domestic league in the crowded rugby calendar.
That the Heineken Cup would be used as such a political football would, of course, be unthinkable here, the tournament's eminence being long enshrined in the Celtic nations. Brian O'Driscoll articulated this view yesterday: "I know they take massive pride in their domestic league, but they have to realise pitting themselves against the best teams in Europe is where it's at," said the Irish captain.
That may be true for O'Driscoll and his colleagues, but clearly the imperfect weld-job that has kept the tournament going so far will no longer hold their views and the contrasting ones held in France and England together.
One wonders if the Heineken Cup's organisational fusion of the Celtic, union-led model and the club-dominated one in France and, probably eventually, England, can ever be properly fastened.