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Opinion: French clubs remain the key to a real Heineken Cup

The LNR has not yet committed to playing in the ERC-run tournament next season.

Toulon and Clermont will have big says on the future of the Heineken Cup.
Toulon and Clermont will have big says on the future of the Heineken Cup.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

FROM THE BEGINNING, the Heineken Cup mess has been very clear from the Irish provinces’ point of view. The IRFU are the decision makers on their behalf and what the governing body says, goes.

Connacht, Ulster, Munster and Leinster are utterly dependent on the national union’s finances. As we are often reminded, rugby in this country is reliant on the IRFU’s ability to make money through the national team. Tickets sales for the Aviva Stadium pay for the majority of rugby in this country, at all levels.

In France, the situation is very, very different. The Top 14 clubs are privately owned, many by millionaires who have no problem investing huge amounts of their personal fortunes into the teams. The FFR [Fédération Française de Rugby] does not keep the clubs alive, and yet the national union still has the right to decide which European competition their clubs play in, and on what terms.

As the Top 14 clubs grow – and they are growing at an almighty rate, with the average budget rising by nearly 7% in the last year – they are feeling less and less comfortable with the FFR governing them. Deep at the root of this whole European club rugby mess is this issue; the French clubs are no longer happy to have the FFR calling the shots for them.

Under current French law, the Top 14 clubs have no right whatsoever to break away and play in a new European competition [in this instance the Rugby Champions Cup] without the direct approval of their national union. Several of the clubs’ president and boards are uneasy with the FFR still having that power, despite the fact that the clubs are not reliant on the union.

The English clubs’ plans for the Rugby Champions Cup have been intrinsically dependent on the LNR [Ligue National de Rugby, the umbrella group that represents the Top 14 clubs] from the very start. They are a dangerous ally though. The real interest in France is the Top 14 itself; the Heineken Cup is mainly considered a sideshow and the big money is made in the domestic league.

imagePierre Camou remains insistent that the French clubs will be involved in an ERC-run competition next season. Christophe Ena/AP/Press Association Images.

The threat of a huge legal battle between the FFR and LNR looms in the background. It looks highly unlikely still, particularly as the LNR would be taking on fundamental French law if they seek to detach themselves of the FFR’s governing rule. However, there is likely to be some relaxation in the FFR’s power over the Top 14 clubs if they are to remain in the ERC-run competition next season.

So, it was frustrating that last night’s statement from the Irish, Scottish, Italian, Welsh and French unions included no mention of whether the FFR had finally gained the LNR’s agreement to play on in an ERC-run competition next season. Over the last month, FFR president Pierre Camou has tempted the Top 14 clubs to do so with a reported offer of €2 million each. He has also been increasingly vocal about the fact that the LNR has no legal right to breakaway.

Reports in France suggest that the FFR – represented by Olivier Keraudren, Christian Garnier and Serge Blanco – and the LNR – represented by René Fontès, Patrick Wolff and Emmanuel Eschalier – met today to discuss the issues that have them at loggerheads. If the FFR can assure the LNR that the clubs will get an increased wedge of the decision making power for their futures, then the u-turn on leaving the Heineken Cup may be complete.

With the Premiership clubs insisting that they will be powering ahead with plans for the Rugby Champions Cup and that the French clubs “won’t play if we don’t play” in an ERC-run tournament, last night’s statement really is meaningless at this point. Until we hear a unified statement of support from the LNR, we cannot assume that the French are on truly on board with a continuation of the Heineken Cup.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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