By Gavin Mortimer
HEINEKEN CUP hell may have broken loose in the British Isles but on the south side of the English Channel Tuesday’s news of the tournament’s likely demise has caused barely a ripple.
There is nothing about it in the French national press, not in Liberation, nor Aujourd’hui en France, not even in Direct Matin, the country’s nearest equivalent to The Metro. Instead the sports pages are dominated by the French football’s team defeat of Belarus in last night’s World Cup qualifier.
L’Equipe, the daily paper dedicated to sport, did carry the news, tucked away at the bottom of page 13, under a half-page profile of Bordeaux prop Jean-Baptiste Poux in which he states: “I’m not Chabal or Michalak.” Whatever.
The headline of the small L’Equipe piece is ‘The European Cup on the precipice’, an accurate analysis of the crisis facing the northern hemisphere game, and the article carries suitably melodramatic words such as ‘bombshells’ and ‘claps of thunder’. There are also comments from Paul Goze, president of the Ligue nationale de rugby (LNR), the governing body in charge of the Top 14 in France, accusing “the Celts of playing a stalling game” and declaring that a result the French and English clubs “will pass to plan B”.
Plan B is the breakaway Anglo-French cup proposed on Tuesday, and which has caused such consternation north of the Channel. But in the same L’Equipe article Jean-Pierre Lux, president of the ERC, rubbishes the idea. “An Anglo-French competition will never be organised,” he declares. “To organise a cross-border competition, one must have the agreement of the IRB. And a body already exists to organise a European Cup – it’s the ERC. Huge legal problems would follow if another entity came into being.”
Strong words, so why such a muted reaction in France? Because rugby ruptures are hardly uncommon this side of the Channel. The LNR and FFR have been at each other’s throats for what seems like an eternity in a bitter squabble over club versus country; the clubs regularly fall out with the LNR; coaches are fired by clubs; players threaten to go on strike; refs get abused by players and coach, and last, but not least, there are the perpetual financial woes plaguing the French domestic game that in recent seasons have led to the expulsion of Montauban and Bourgoin from the top echelons.There are only so many toys that can be thrown out of the pram.
The feelings of the French to the latest crisis to hit the game was best summed up by a message posted on rugbyrama.fr, the internet site of the excellent Midi Olympique. “One of the rare times when we see the English and French clubs agree is when it’s a question of big bucks.”