Anglo-French rugby union breakaway 'inevitable'
Toulon's Delon Armitage (right) evades a challenge by Charlie Hodgson of Saracens at Twickenham on April 28. Plans to establish an Anglo-French rival to rugby union's existing European Cup next season were "inevitable", the chairman of English Premiership side Saracens said Wednesday.
Tournament chiefs at European Rugby Cup (ERC) were due to hold a board meeting in Dublin on Wednesday with the future of both the Heineken (European) Cup and the second-tier Amlin European Challenge Cup at stake.
Leading English and French clubs have served notice of their intention to quit the competitions when an agreement covering the running of the tournaments expires at the end of the ongoing 2013/14 European season.
Tuesday saw the Premiership release a statement saying they, along with their French counterparts, had proposed a 20-team competition to replace the current 24-team European Cup format, "based on the principles of qualification on merit from each league."
Clubs from both the Premiership and France's Top 14 are unhappy with the existing set-up which sees nearly all leading sides from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Italy guaranteed European Cup places on grounds of nationality rather than on their positions in the domestic Celtic League.
This season, only one Celtic League team, Wales's Newport Gwent Dragons, failed to qualify for the European Cup.
It means the continent's top club competition is made up of 11 Celtic League teams, seven from France and six from England.
However, the Premiership's plan did extend an invitation to teams from beyond England and France to join their proposed new event.
"It was inevitable, it has to happen," Saracens chairman Nigel Wray told ESPN.
"It is a Union competition, set up by the Unions, fair enough. But it is the clubs taking part in it and it's hugely important to the clubs. We want it to be a club-controlled competition.
"In addition, under the current structure, the two nations -- France and England -- who provide the vast majority of the revenue are permanently out-voted by the four other nations.
"In that system, you have to leave if you want to change something.
"And that is what hopefully we are doing. We are setting up our own competition which one hopes the other nations will join. We hope it will have better revenue and will be better run than it is at the moment.
"To me, the one person always neglected in these discussions is the customer. What do they want?
"They don't want more and more games, they want big games. And that applies to everything in life -- the big concerts, the big songs, the big sports games. They don't want to see meaningless games. If that is what the customer wants, then that is what you've got to give them."
Meanwhile Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty said frustration over the lack of progress in talks with ERC were behind his organisation's move.
"We have had 15 months of discussions which haven't produced an outcome. There hasn't been a meeting since May, and there has been no urgency over the summer," McCafferty said.
"If we can't reach an outcome involving all the European clubs, we at least have to set up a competition involving the English and French clubs."
That Tuesday's move was an Anglo-French proposal rather than just Premiership-inspired was confirmed when the LNR, the governing body of French club rugby union, issued a statement saying they'd participate in the European Cup from next season only if it also involved English sides.
"Considering the seriousness and the urgency of the situation, the Top 14 clubs wish to reiterate that they will only participate in competitions which also involve English clubs," an LNR statement said.
Meanwhile the row has been stoked further by a dispute over European Cup television rights
ERC have a deal in place with Sky Sports while Premiership Rugby sold the rights for those games played by their clubs from next season to BT Vision, a new channel launched recently in the United Kingdom.
ERC considers the new deal to be 'illegal', insisting only they can negotiate broadcast rights for the competition.
Furthermore, ERC recently extended their contract with Sky Sports until 2018.