Welsh regions stuck in Catch 22-situation
October 10, 2013
Ospreys' Eli Walker is one of the prominent names who may be left in limbo © PA Photos
If the Welsh Rugby Union's attitude to the Heineken Cup and its support of ERC, the body that runs it, sounds ambivalent and even contradictory at times it is because it is treading a delicate path and is anxious to keep all its options open.
In their latest statement one paragraph read, "[The WRU] will not grant permission for clubs or regions to participate in future tournaments which do not have full approval of the IRB and WRU."
The next said, "[The WRU] reiterates its determination to negotiate a new format for the European Cup with all of its stakeholders."
That would have left Derek McGrath and the rest of the ERC board fuming quietly but would have been music to the French and English clubs threatening a breakaway.
The support for the status quo is anything but unequivocal and shows the WRU realises change is needed. Coupled with the admission from the Scottish Rugby Union Chief Executive, Mark Dodson, that he understood where PRL and LNR were coming from when they asked for a more competitive qualification process for the Heineken Cup - quickly followed by an official SRU statement echoing the WRU stance on permission - it indicates that some realise they are trying to defend the indefensible.
Wales are in a particularly difficult position because there is an ongoing row between the regions and the WRU about funding and that is exacerbated because the revenue streams from the RaboDirect PRO12 are inadequate and nobody really believes this latest incarnation of the Celtic League works.
Nigel Wray, chairman of Saracens, suggested a couple of weeks ago that the Welsh regions should be invited to join the Aviva Premiership. It was mischievous and political dynamite but, off the record, quite a few board members from the Scarlets, Ospreys, Blues and Dragons were saying, "if only that were possible all our problems would be solved." In many ways it makes sense.
In the days before national leagues the Welsh clubs were always a huge draw when they visited the top English sides and vice-versa. It would also expand the Aviva Premiership to a 16 club competition which would be a big bonus to all the clubs not competing in the Heineken Cup.
At the moment those clubs have just 11 meaningful home games to make their money. That would jump to 15, an increase of over 25%, which would make a massive difference. Then there would be no need for the Anglo-Welsh Cup, a tournament that generates about as much interest and excitement as washing dishes and the extra variety would undoubtedly spice-up the season.
Clubs competing in the Heineken Cup obviously get another three home games guaranteed and maybe another two if they get through to the knock-out stages but that leaves the rest living off scraps.
The Amlin Challenge Cup does not work either - I know because I had first-hand experience of it when I was running London Welsh last season. We knew we could not compete meaningfully because of all the well-documented problems surrounding our promotion to the Premiership but I was amazed to see how big clubs such as Stade Francais approached it. Everybody fielded weakened teams and only took it seriously once they were in the knock-out stages and realised they could win it, thus gaining a place in the Heineken for this year.
In the last couple of weeks hardcore ERC people have continued to argue about the principle of governance - my old adversary, Jean-Pierre Lux, immediately sought backing from his compatriot IRB chairman, Bernard Lapasset, and the French Federation - and are still trying to argue that PRL and LNR are purely motivated by greed. Everybody wants more money and the BT Sport television deal has given PRL some heavy artillery but nobody can argue with the facts. 11 of the 12 RaboDirectPro12 teams are in the biggest tournament in Europe without having to qualify and many of them do not deserve to be there.
Of course there is a duty to promote rugby in the smaller nations, nobody disagrees with that, and everybody, PRL and LNR included, wants a pan-European Cup. The sensible voices within ERC appear to have accepted this even if they are not allowed to say so and are prepared to accept a more equitable qualification process - only one side automatically guaranteed from Italy and Scotland with two from Wales and Ireland would be a great start - but there is no sign of compromise from the executive which still seems to believe it can bully the English and French clubs into submission.
I do not believe it will happen at this stage - Celtic solidarity and all that - but the consequences of a break-up of the Celtic League need to be examined. The structure at present is demonstrably unfair and, I believe, unsustainable.
Without reform, somebody - most likely the Welsh - will break ranks and those left behind will have nothing.
© 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