Sport Comment: Unions must reject this Anglo-French plot

John Inverdale
HANDS up who really understands what’s going on at the moment in the seemingly never-ending power struggle that has been enveloping European club rugby since William Webb Ellis first picked up the Heineken Cup and drank from it.

It’s a battle borne of a lack of leadership within the hierarchy of the sport and a greed shared by some of the major egos who run leading clubs on both sides of the channel, who are under the impression that a breakaway Anglo-French competition will have anything like the kudos or appeal of the existing structure.

After Cardiff’s extraordinary volte-face in beating Johnny Wilkinson’s Toulon at the weekend, how could anyone seriously suggest that a trophy minus the celtic nations would be anything other than Heineken-lite? And just look how successful alcohol-free beer has been over the years.

However, unless everyone retreats from what appear to be very entrenched positions, the sport will experience a schism next year less than 12 months before the World Cup.

The central problem is the clubs’ mistaken belief that they are the driving force behind the game. They are not. Rugby union, unlike football, is a top-down sport, powered by the force of international competition.

Don’t be fooled by a gate of 60,000 for Saracens against Toulouse on Friday night. For many of those at Wembley, it will be the only game of rugby they see this season.

So while the clubs think they are holding all the aces, in fact it is the unions. Which is why, when push comes to shove in this unedifying scrum, the RFU and FFR need to make it unequivocally clear that if the breakaway happens, all those players involved in it will automatically be ruled out of selection for their national teams.

And if that upsets the World Cup applecart and means Italy and Samoa get in to the semi finals, well so be it, and arguably how much better for the international game.

You suspect that there will be an 11th hour compromise because there invariably is once the peacocks have stopped posturing. But if there isn’t, it is the unions who must say “non” to both the English and French.