French U-turn on new Euro rugby structure leaves English isolated

Frank Dalleres
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ENGLISH rugby’s plans to form a breakaway European competition could be delayed after French top-flight teams yesterday vowed to continue playing in the Heineken Cup next term – provided their English counterparts did to.

Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) said presidents of Top 14 sides voted “unanimously” to take part in a tournament run by European Rugby Cup (ERC), which operates the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup, though are still open to competing in a rival Rugby Champions Cup from 2015.

French clubs had previously declared they would join English Premiership teams in quitting ERC-run tournaments from next season.

It is the latest twist in a long-running and increasingly bitter dispute over the future of European club rugby, and could leave English teams isolated.

Premiership chiefs have previously made clear their refusal to take part in any ERC-operated competition, having served notice of their withdrawal in August 2012. Without support from their French counterparts though, the league has vowed to review its options.

“If there’s a new structure to replace ERC and we have details of that, something may be feasible,” said Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty.

Top 14 clubs’ U-turn comes amid intense pressure from the French Rugby Federation (FFR) to abandon a breakaway.

The FFR has offered each French top division club €2m to remain in ERC competitions and threatened to scrap plans for a new accord that would allow them to negotiate their own broadcast deals.

Premiership Rugby’s split from ERC is rooted in a row over how the competition is structured and rewarded, with English teams wanting more qualifying spaces and a greater share of revenue.

ERC has since agreed to English and French clubs enjoying greater parity with sides from the Celtic-dominated Pro12, although it has not been enough to persuade Premiership chairmen to return to the negotiating table.