Cutting the European third tier harms the minnows, argues barrister Tim O’Connor
Last year, one team in eight in Europe was from outside the three professional leagues. This year, it’ll be one in 20. At the most.
Another day, another disappointment, as European Professional Club Rugby’s (EPCR) proposed third-tier event was quietly postponed until next year.
The reserve price on French TV rights, ERC being asked back to run this year’s competitions, still waiting for fixtures for later rounds – missed targets are nothing new in EPCR’s brief history. This is particularly bad, though, because it hits the weakest hardest.
Last season we heard a lot in the interminable fight over European club rugby – that the game had to be widened, new teams brought into the fold. The new regime promised a third tier to do just that. With the recent announcement – notably absent from EPCR’s site – that there will be no competition, we’ve seen that far from things getting better, they have got worse for those on the outside.
We were told in March that Portugal, Russia, Spain and Belgium would all be joining the party. Instead, European rugby just became even more of a closed shop.
The chances of outsiders rising to be contenders just receded further. Without games, how are they meant to step up? The first-ever European game involved a Romanian team but now, instead of opening up, the door’s pretty much been shut to them, and definitely to others like the Portuguese.
With the top competition final being taken from Italy’s San Siro to Twickenham too, the pattern could not be clearer.
Worse, established sides in Tier One nations are making it even less likely for lower-level clubs to step up. Brive, Saracens and Clermont have set up links in the Pacific Islands to feed into their academies.
Does anyone doubt Sarries’ signing up of teams in Romania and Georgia as feeders is any different, that the aim is to source players from Tier Two countries to feed their own needs?
How Tier One unions and clubs treat their Tier Two counterparts is like a feudal relationship. Send men; know your place; be grateful for it. They are vassals, and are likely to remain so.