The International Rugby Board (IRB) and England’s Premiership clubs appeared to be on a collision course on Wednesday as the global governing body signaled its opposition to an Anglo-French breakaway from the European Cup.
Both the European Cup and the second-tier European Challenge Cup face an uncertain future now that English and French clubs have given notice to quit the existing European Rugby Cup (ERC) competition structure at the end of the season, amid a row over revenue distribution, qualification procedures and broadcast rights.
A European Cup without English and French clubs would leave a tournament made up of the same sides that compete in the domestic Celtic League, although there have been suggestions that South African provincial teams could fill the gap caused by an Anglo-French breakaway.
However, IRB chief executive Brett Gosper insisted on Wednesday that rugby’s ruling body wanted a pan-European competition for the continent’s leading clubs to continue beyond this season and was not prepared to sanction an Anglo-French tournament.
“We don’t believe in an Anglo-French competition in itself. We strongly believe it should be a European competition and that’s what we would be supporting and throwing our weight behind,” Gosper said.
“A full European competition is the right thing for the game of rugby in terms of development, growth and so on. That’s how we see it,” said the 54-year-old Australian, who played for Paris’ Racing Club.
“We urge all of those parties to get together and find some common ground because we believe it’s in the interests of the game to do so,” he added.
The English Premiership, while insisting that teams from the other nations competing in the European Cup — Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy — are welcome to join them, reiterated on Wednesday that the present situation is unsustainable and, at the very least, they will proceed with an Anglo-French event.
“On 10 September 2013, Premiership Rugby issued a statement confirming that the English and French clubs were instigating new competitions after the conclusion of unsuccessful ERC negotiations,” their latest statement said.
“The clubs see no purpose in new discussions starting as late as the end of October 2013, as proposed earlier this week [by ERC]. The proposals from the French and English clubs for two new, strong competitions of 20 teams in each were tabled more than a year ago,” it added.
“The clubs reaffirmed their instruction to Premiership Rugby to take immediate action to put in place a competition for the 2014/15 season onwards to include the French and English clubs, and for this competition to be open to teams from other countries. It was confirmed that this should be progressed with urgency,” the statement said.
The Premiership’s French equivalent, the Top 14, have long said they will not play in a European competition where no English clubs are involved.
Gosper was speaking at a news conference in London to mark two years until the 2015 World Cup in England, a milestone that has been overshadowed by the ongoing row over the future of the European Cup.
Nevertheless, he was confident of a resolution and insisted the dispute was a sign of the growing strength of rugby union, not a weakness.
“We’re confident the different parties involved will find some common ground and that it won’t impact on the World Cup,” Gosper said.
“This is a negotiation where parties are seeking to get more than they had in the past. It’s a normal process. This is a young professional sport. The international game is growing, the club game is growing. Both sides have to accept the perspective of the other in order to reach some common ground,” he added.
“No one likes these sorts of disputes to play out publicly, but then again they’re the symptom of a very healthy growing sport and a sport that everyone’s interested in,” Gosper said.