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Heineken Cup
Italians vow to stand their ground in euro row
Enrico Borra
September 28, 2013
New Italian Rugby Federation president Alfredo Gavazzi attends a Trofeo Eccelenza 2012-2013 press conference, Milan, Italy, September 20, 2012
FIR president Alfredo Gavazzi has predicted a deal will eventually be reached in the Heineken Cup row © Getty Images
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Romans have learnt from the past not to underestimate the power of an alliance with Celts - now rugby is giving them another lesson.

Since the introduction of two Italian teams into the Celtic League three years ago, the bind between Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) and the Celtic Unions has strengthened, year after year, to the point it is now a key partnership in the political world of rugby. In these troubled times, when the future of one of the sport's best ever competitions is at stake and, at least, one of the two Italian tickets for the Heineken Cup is under scrutiny, that alliance is immensely important. The most pressing task facing the FIR hierarchy is the protection of the Azzurri's recent growth from the English and French clubs' interests - and in Rome they are fully committed to the cause.

Despite having endured one of the most difficult weeks the European game has ever seen, FIR president Alfredo Gavazzi, who has been at the helm for just over a year, is sitting comfortably at his desk. His concerns centre on the damage done by Premiership Rugby (PRL) and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) to the image of European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC) and to its jewel, the Heineken Cup. The FIR stated its position earlier this week, insisting they will defend a truly European format and, most importantly, will not accept any compromise. "The Unions involved in the RaboDirect PRO12 have formally stated their positions through official press releases and I do hope that soon RFU and FFR will follow," said Gavazzi, "I have received words of unity form them but they also have to state it clearly. We are waiting."

The failure of the various parties to agree on the future European landscape is becoming increasingly embarrassing and recently forced the International Rugby Board to take a formal position in the row. "There's a clear and understandable difference between our preference and that of the French and English," added Gavazzi. "We don't have the "political complexity" like they have in England and France. In those countries, there are clubs that have significant budgets compared to the respective Unions and so it's understandable that PRL and LNR would act in an aggressive way to defend their interests."

So does the problem have its roots in the way that professional rugby has been allowed to develop in the last 18 years? "My personal viewpoint is that rugby should calm down or we will soon get to a point of no return. The French and English clubs are racing each other and that has led to a significant increase in their costs to a level that is not sustainable and they know it. That's why they want more power and more money but the decision to disrupt the Heineken Cup is a huge risk for them. The problem is not the ERC or the Cup format, the problem is the path that club rugby has taken in those two countries in recent times."

 
"History tells us that an agreement will be reached at the very last minute of the last day"
 

Will PRL and LNR really find benefit in a competition without Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy? "In my experience as an entrepreneur, I tend to avoid a position of closure," explained Gavazzi. "Expansion is the engine that allows projects to reach global success and that's why I can't understand the point of getting to this "wall against wall" attitude. In the case of the Rugby Champions Cup, there is no guarantee that teams from the southern hemisphere will join to form a continental competition.

"It's highly unlikely due to costs, the required organisation and the limited time offered by an already busy calendar. If the goal is to create a truly continental competition then that can't be done without all the Six Nations countries. We are all looking for growth in club rugby's business and for a more competitive game. We have identified and put in place a structure - ERC - that has produced an unprecedented level of success and exposure. Do we have to sit at a table and talk about changes required to ensure it continues to deliver in the years to come? Yes. Do we need to throw all the hard work done so far away to get something new, different and that fans are not used to? Not at all."

However, the English and French clubs seem to think they can do it on their own. "The current situation is clear: Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Wales will not play in any competition except the Heineken Cup," insisted Gavazzi. "The IRB have stated that they want to approve a pan-European competition and at the moment FFR and RFU have yet to grant their clubs authorisation to launch a new competition. So, if the English and French clubs are set on creating a new competition under these conditions, then they will have to accept all the responsibilities that come form that decision."

So, to be clear regarding the future format of the Heineken Cup, will Italy stand its ground? "Sure it will. We will defend our two places in the Heineken Cup as well as the Wales, Irish and Scottish position."

And how will this saga end? "I see a Heineken Cup with the same number of participants as the last few seasons," said Gavazzi. "History tells us that an agreement will be reached at the very last minute of the last day. That's what happened in Paris four years ago, remember?"

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