By Jonathan Rest
The International Rugby Board, rugby union's governing body, has indicated that it would block any attempt by English and French clubs to form a breakaway European competition, as a question mark continues to hang over the future of the Heineken Cup, the continent's top clubs competition.
The 12 clubs in England's top-tier Aviva Premiership met last night and reaffirmed their interest to form a new tournament with their counterparts from France's Top 14, but Brett Gosper, chief executive of the IRB, cautioned against the idea.
For any new competition to be formed, it must be approved by each of the participating unions, and if it is a cross-border competition, the IRB gets the final say.
Asked yesterday if the board would veto an Anglo-French alternative to the Heineken Cup, Gosper said: "We don't think a tournament such as that is in the best interests of the game. We don't believe in an Anglo-French competition in itself. We strongly believe it should be a European competition and that's what we would be supporting and throwing our weight behind.
"We know there are lots of discussions that are happening but we urge all of those parties to get together and find some common ground because we believe it's in the interests of the game to do so."
Gosper said it was the IRB's "clear position that we support a full European competition, and our desire is that it is a bona fide European competition."
Last week, the English and French clubs pushed ahead with their threat to pull out of the Heineken Cup and second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup at the end of the 2013-14 season, when the accord for the two tournaments organised by European Rugby Cup expires, to create new competitions.
Negotiations over the future format for the European competitions have stalled, with vested interests prevailing, raising the prospect that the popular Heineken Cup might not continue, at least in its current guise.
The English and French clubs have long been unhappy with the easier qualifying process for the main competition for teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy, and are proposing two tournaments of 20 teams with qualifying based on merit, and a new commercial model that would financially benefit the founders.
While the Anglo-French clubs have invited those from Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy to join a new-look competition, they have not ruled out going it alone if their terms are not met.
The IRB has yet to involve itself directly in the ERC negotiations, and Gosper said he hoped all parties could come to a satisfactory agreement.
He said: "No-one likes these types of disputes to play out publicly, but that is a symptom of a very healthy growing sport, and a sport that everyone is interested in. It is a good thing for rugby, although we would rather get this resolved and move on and have a full European competition that all parties - the clubs, the unions - are happy with.
"I would urge all of the parties to come together for the negotiations. They may all have different views but we believe in a European organisation and a European competition and that is our starting point."
That appears unlikely at present, however, as with the next meeting of ERC stakeholders scheduled to take place in Dublin on October 23, Premiership Rugby last night revealed it had no intention in participating.
A statement from the league read: "The clubs see no purpose in new discussions starting as late as the end of October 2013."