/ Rugby

English and French clubs threaten to pull out of Heineken Cup, ERC 'dismayed' by threat

Updated: Thursday, 23 Aug 2012 18:19 | Comments

French and English clubs believe that Celtic nation clubs have an unfair advantage
French and English clubs believe that Celtic nation clubs have an unfair advantage

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Top clubs in England and France are threatening to quit the Heineken Cup and organise a rival competition as they believe the current format is weighted too heavily in favour of the Celtic nations.

Leinster and Munster have won five of the last seven Heineken Cups between them, with Leinster winning three of the last four.

Their rivals in England and France believe that is partly a result of a qualification system that allows them to rest their players during the RaboDirect Pro12 season.

Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty told the Guardian: "Most of the Ireland squad will not be released for the Pro12 until rounds three or four, something they could not do if they depended on their finishing position in the league for European qualification.

"The clubs in England and France have served two years' notice that we intend to pull out of Europe because there needs to be a level playing field.

"So far, the response from the other countries has been slow, even though we are not sabre-rattling.

"We have not been locked in talks and there is no meeting about the issue until the end of next month.

"Our view is that the qualification process needs to be changed so that it is entirely merit-based - the top teams in all three leagues as well as the winners of the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup should make up 20 sides taking part."

"The clubs in England and France have served two years' notice that we intend to pull out of Europe because there needs to be a level playing field"

The English and French sides believe no more than six Pro12 teams should qualify, although that would put at risk the involvement of Scottish and Italian sides who currently qualify automatically.

"I think those countries have effectively made that decision by forming the Pro12," McCafferty added.

"It is like me saying that the Premiership has to provide a qualifier from the south-west. It cannot be good for the competition that you do not have the best sides qualifying.

"Aironi were disbanded at the end of the last season and the newly-formed Zebres go straight into the Heineken Cup."

McCafferty said he was not prepared to do anything to damage the Aviva Premiership in order to change the qualification system for the Heineken Cup, as the Premiership accounts for 80% of revenues compared to 20% from Europe.

"ERC should know that we are serious and while the issue has to be resolved, everyone has to realise we cannot carry on as we are," he said.

"If it is not, we would go to an Anglo-French competition and if others wanted to join us, fair enough."

The ERC have responded by stating chairman Jean-Pierre Lux and chief executive Derek McGrath have spent the summer seeking proposals from stakeholders that will be tabled at the next meeting in Dublin on 18 September.

They stress that the English and French clubs consented to the existing accord, agreed in 2007 and which has two more seasons to run.

The effective deadline for a new agreement is 2014 when the current accord expires, providing a potential two-year window for the posturing and brinkmanship to continue.

"We are dismayed and frustrated at the position that has been taken by Premier Rugby," ERC spokesman Mark Jones said.

"This is a process that is laid down as part of the accord agreed in 2007. It's not a bolt out of the blue.

"The current qualification process was agreed by ERC's shareholders as part of the 2007 accord.

"This current process is expected and the way it should be.

"We welcome a full review of the tournament and we believe that at the end of the consultation process, European rugby will emerge stronger.

"All of our shareholders have said they want to see European rugby thrive and have agreed this consultation process.

"Our meeting on 18 September in Dublin is the second step in the process."

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