ERC resolution on the cards
London - Mediators called in to help resolve the row over the future of European club rugby insisted Thursday "progress has been made on a number issues" following a two-day meeting in Dublin.
The future of both the European Cup and the second-tier European Challenge Cup was thrown into doubt last month when leading English and French clubs announced plans for breakaway tournaments free from the control of existing organisers, European Rugby Cup (ERC) -- a body dominated by the continent's leading national unions rather than the clubs.
English and French clubs have long complained that Celtic League teams have an unfair advantage in European competition as most of them are guaranteed entry, whereas Premiership and Top 14 teams have to fight hard just to qualify.
But, following a Dublin meeting attended by representatives of Europe's leading unions - England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France and Italy -- as well as ERC chiefs Jean-Pierre Lux and Derek McGrath, independent mediators Graeme Mew and Stephen Drymer delivered a statement that appeared to go some way to dealing with Anglo-French club concerns.
The national unions called for "meritocratic" qualification from the three leagues into the European Cup based on six teams each from England and France, with seven from the Celtic League and the 20th spot decided, initially at least, by an Anglo-French playoff.
Revenues would be divided one third, one third, one third per league "with the stipulation that monies to be received by the Pro12 (Celtic) countries would not be less than the current levels."
However, there was no reference in their statement to ERC, and, significantly, the meeting was boycotted by leading English and French clubs who are continuing to press head with their plans for a Rugby Champions Cup (RCC) that would replace the existing European Cup and European Challenge Cup tournaments next season.
Instead the mediators said they planned to discuss "operations and governance" at their next meeting on November 1.
But for England's Premiership Rugby (PRL) governance is a central point.
PRL acknowledged late Thursday that "progress has been made on some key issues although there remain some significant ones which have not yet been addressed".
"The three Leagues will organise and manage the new Rugby Champions Cup competitions and maximise all the commercial rights," PRL, who added they and their French counterparts would provide the Celtic teams with a minimum financial guarantee, said.
PRL addressed the fear that purely merit-based qualification might leave some Celtic League nations without a team in in the tournament by saying that within the seven automatic places guaranteed for Celtic League sides "there must be at least one team from each country".
The Anglo-French breakaway plan received support Tuesday from Wales's four regional teams -- Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Newport Gwent Dragons and the Scarlets -- which further undermined ERC's position.
But that scheme suffered a setback when Mourad Boudjellal, the owner of French side Toulon, the reigning European champions, said Wednesday that his club would not compete in any breakaway event.
Earlier on Thursday, the Welsh Rugby Union offered to centrally contract leading Welsh players until the future of European club competition was resolved.
Several Wales stars including captain Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones, who both led the British and Irish Lions during this year's 2-1 series win in Australia, are out of contract with their regions at the end of the season.
There were fears the present impasse would leave the regions lacking the financial muscle to tie top players down to new contracts rather than follow the example of Mike Phillips and James Hook, now two among several Wales players representing wealthy French clubs.