For several months clubs, officials and supporters whose allegiances lie outside the Aviva Premiership have marvelled at what they perceive to be Premier Rugby Limited’s audacity at challenging the structure of the Heineken Cup.
They will point to Connacht’s miraculous win in Toulouse, Cardiff’s bizarre victory over Toulon and Edinburgh’s impressive triumph against Munster as proof that all is well with Europe’s top competition and see anyone at PRL who says it isn’t as just power-hungry and motivated by greed.
Which might be true but doesn’t mean the Premiership clubs don’t have genuine grievances that need addressing.
Why should the Celtic League clubs be effectively guaranteed places? Why should they be able to rest their leading players before a big Heineken Cup tie free from the fear of relegation from the RaboDirect? Why should the unions control the competition? PRL are right to raise these questions and ask if a better, more equitable system cannot be found.
Even those who had most to lose, the Italian and Scottish unions, agreed and a smaller, fairer and possibly even more lucrative format has been agreed for the 2014-15 Heineken Cup. But English rugby has been left out in the cold.
PRL thought their clubs and their French counterparts were going to be at the vanguard of a replacement competition, the Rugby Champions Cup, only for the Ligue Nationale de Rugby to turn on its heel and re-engage with what they call the H Cup. As things stand next year’s Heineken Cup will go ahead sans les Anglais.
PRL has suddenly got a nine week hole in its fixture list. You can almost hear the Corporal Jones-like cries of ‘Don’t panic’ emanating from PRL Towers.
It is not my intention to address their varied and sometimes entertaining suggestions in order of ludicrousness but it’s impossible not to start with idea of creating a tournament with South African franchises/clubs.
Described by PRL as one of several ‘exotic’ proposals it seems completely ignorant of the fact the top South African teams play at a different time of year and have, in the Super 15, their own rampant competition.
The question of PRL chairman Quentin Smith: ‘What teams from around the world wouldn’t want to come and play here?’ reveals the over-inflated sense of importance that landed the organisation in this mess in the first place.
Even if the Sharks, Bulls, Lions and Stormers wanted to set up a tournament with the English, would their coaches, the South African players union or even SARU permit Bryan Habana and Eben Etzebeth to play in their off-season. No doubt someone at PRL will fall in love with the idea of the Natal Sharks playing Sale Sharks or Leicester Tigers facing a big cat derby against the Lions. The idea of the 12 Premiership clubs all playing each other at least once more has also been floated, as has the prospect of these matches being staged around the world in places like Dubai or Hong Kong.
There is also the option of expanding the Premiership, either by inviting in the Welsh districts who are currently in dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union, or perhaps even by adding a few Championship sides.
Many leading figures in the top flight seem thrilled with the idea of a cross-border competition, no doubt remembering the traditional mid-week battles with the likes of Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli, but one has to doubt the power, both legal and financial, of these now regional teams to act against the union’s wishes. The WRU are still fully behind the Heineken Cup.
And it is difficult to see this as the morally right course of action. Any Anglo-Welsh event would not only be calamitous for the structure of rugby in the Principality, it would also be deeply unfair to clubs in this country.
Teams like Bristol, Leeds, London Welsh and Nottingham have battled for years to earn the right to play at the highest level so to see the Blues, Scarlets, Ospreys and Dragons air-lifted over their very heads would be deeply unpopular.
Surely the best course of action would be for PRL to go back to its wife and tell her they’re sorry. Unless there’s some reason why they can’t do that and that really would be cause to panic.