Yesterday saw another worrying development for those whose offices lie within the bowels of Murrayfield Stadium. On the day national coach Scott Johnson announced his squad for the November Tests, it emerged that Regional Rugby Wales (RRW), the group that represents the respective Welsh regions, has “confirmed its full support for the proposed new Rugby Champions Cup”.
Now, speculation will abound in the coming days on the stance of the Welsh Rugby Union, and things may become clearer after European Rugby Cup (ERC)’s stakeholder meeting today. RRW’s statement claims that the body are “looking forward to working with the WRU to support their efforts”. Whether the Union are likely to stand in the way of their regions joining the Rugby Champions Cup remains to be seen, but suggestions from those in the know are that talks have taken place between the Welsh Chiefs and their Premier Rugby (PRL, the body representing top-flight English clubs) counterparts, and that progress is being made.
This, the latest of twists and turns in a road more winding than a colonoscopy, could represent the tipping point in the power struggle between the warring factions of European rugby. Should the Welsh regions indeed climb aboard the Rugby Champions Cup bandwagon, it leaves their Scottish, Irish and Italian equivalents stranded on ERC Island. If the major players in Irish rugby, whose sides are traditionally so successful in the Heineken Cup, also pledge allegiance to the new tournament, the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) will find itself in a perilous position.
At present, the SRU still retains a small measure of leverage. Their limited tools of negotiation are nullified if the Leinsters, Munsters and Ulsters of this world jump ship, however. It is fair to say that with Scottish sides gracing the latter stages of the Heineken Cup on just two occasions, recording home attendances that bear no comparison to their illustrious cross-Channel rivals, and generating relatively little interest and revenue from the two pro teams, the head honchos of the Rugby Champions Cup are unlikely to be generous when slicing up what will remain of the cash cake.
The Scots risk leaving themselves in a dangerous situation. Recent warnings of “financial oblivion” for those who steer clear of the proposed competition may smack somewhat of scaremongering, but a late decision to join up could see the SRU left with the monetary scraps discarded by the pack’s dominant figures.
The SRU cannot afford – both in the financial and metaphorical sense – to sit back and watch events unfold from afar. It cannot wait until each of the French clubs and their respective owners have fought it out, and determined on which side of the European rift they lay their lot. It cannot put its own position and future at risk by delaying what may well be an inevitable move to join a breakaway that now appears to be gathering speed.
The potential economic woes are all the more worrying given the glut of new Southern Hemisphere signings brought in by Edinburgh under Alan Solomons in recent weeks. Some have criticised the SRU for bankrolling such expenditure with the future of the European cash under serious doubt.
For a union not renowned for their swift decision-making, progressiveness or pragmatism, it could prove to be a big test of those currently in charge. In particular, Chief Executive Mark Dodson, who stated last week he was “not frightened of meritocracy”. Whatever the qualification format of the Rugby Championship Cup proves to be, it will almost certainly require both Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors to place at least in the top eight of the RaboDirect Pro12 table. That should be a very achievable goal, but one that enhances the need to perform well consistently when on domestic duty.
The European rugby goalposts have once again been moved, but Scotland and the SRU are still in with a shout of scoring. What remains to be seen is whether the powers-that-be, with the ball at their feet, have the gumption to take that shot.