LONDON – The leading English and French clubs are adamant there is nothing the International Rugby Board can do to prevent them from setting up a replacement tournament for the Heineken Cup next season, even though the three Celtic unions and Italy will vigorously oppose what was on Sunday christened the Rugby Champions Cup.
The timing of the announcement by Premiership Rugby and Ligue Nationale de Rugby that they had agreed a name for their tournament, which they have invited teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy to join, was made less than 24 hours before the media launch of this season's Heineken Cup in Paris.
The two club bodies said they would not be attending a two-day round of negotiations called by the Heineken Cup organisers, European Rugby Cup Ltd, for 23-24 October with the aim of finding a way of persuading the clubs in France and England to sign a new accord.
But the French federation on Sunday night ordered its Top 14 clubs to get back around the ERC negotiating table on 23 October, adding that it would not give its approval for what it described as an "irrelevant and inappropriate" tournament.
Under French law, sporting clubs are allowed to play only in tournaments endorsed by their governing body.
ERC on Friday appointed a mediator, the Canadian lawyer Graham Mew, to break the impasse between the clubs on one side and the three Celtic unions and Italy on the other.
The former believe a club competition should be run by clubs whereas the latter insist that IRB regulations mean that unions are obliged to control cross-border tournaments.
"We see no point in meeting the mediator because we have no dispute with ERC," said the chief executive of Premiership Rugby, Mark McCafferty.
"We have given due notice that we will not be participating in ERC-run competitions from next season and, as we are not breaking any contractual obligations, there is nothing to mediate over.
"Our concern is to get the Rugby Champions Cup up and running and we have wasted enough time already. We have spoken to a number of potential sponsors, all of whom have approached us, and we want to have everything sorted out by the end of November.
“We are inviting the other teams involved in the Heineken Cup to join us and hope to speak to them shortly. We will not be at the October meeting and neither will the French because we will not be involved with ERC after this season."
McCafferty said he would be prepared to speak to Mew over the telephone, adding that it would be a short conversation unless the mediator showed he was open-minded and that his mandate was not simply to find a way of preserving ERC.
One reason the clubs are adamant they will not work with the Heineken Cup organisers is that, if ERC falls, which it almost certainly will if the English and French clubs pull out, a key obstacle to a new agreement lapses with it.
After the French and English gave their two-year notice to withdraw in June last year, ERC negotiated a contract extension with its broadcasters, Sky.
Premiership Rugby then signed an agreement with BT to show all domestic matches for four years and cross-border games for three from next season. With ERC wound up, the Sky deal becomes void. – The Guardian