French and English clubs eye South Africa as a possible Heineken Cup breakaway threatens, writes Gregor Paul
A European power struggle to restructure the Heineken Cup is being watched closely by Sanzar as there are rumblings that the leading English and French clubs are ready to lure South Africa's provinces out of Super Rugby.
A scrap has broken out in Europe with the usual ingredients of money, control and pride at the centre of the dispute. There are veiled threats of a breakaway looming.
Similar threats have been around before and Sanzar chief executive Greg Peters says he's aware that there has been informal discussion between some English clubs and South African provinces. But he doesn't have any sense that Super Rugby is in any imminent danger.
The possibility of the South Africans defecting and jumping into a new alliance with the English and French is, to his mind, not something for which there is currently any burning desire.
But he accepts the pot is boiling in Europe and the situation fluid. Talks that are informal now may not be in a few months if the warring factions in Europe fail to agree on a new way forward for the cross-border Heineken Cup.
The English and French clubs have tendered their resignation from the tournament and won't play in it from 2014 unless they get the changes they are after. Currently the tournament has 24 teams - six from the French Top 14, six from England's Aviva Premiership, three Irish provinces, three Welsh regions, Edinburgh and Glasgow from Scotland, two teams from Italy, the reigning champions and the winners of the second tier competition, the Amlin Cup.
The criteria has been in place for an age but has started to bother both the English and French, who argue it unfairly penalises them. While the likes of Leinster, Munster, Cardiff and Edinburgh can afford to rotate their players - resting top men in their domestic league and focus on the Heineken Cup because they know qualification the following year is guaranteed - the English and French clubs have to fight on two fronts.
Not only are they trying to do well in the Heineken Cup, they also have to remain in the top six places of their domestic league - a huge task in itself - to ensure Heineken qualification for the following year.
Last year, five Celtic teams were in the quarter-finals and Leinster won it for the third time in four years, while Celtic teams have won five of the last seven finals.
The English and French want the tournament to be cut to 20 teams: with six from the Aviva Premiership, six from the Top 14, six from the RaboDirectPro12 (former Celtic League) and the reigning champions and Amlin Cup winners.
The Scots and Italians would be the big losers in that scenario but others feel the tournament would suffer as a whole because the key to its success has been the involvement of teams from all six nations.
Buried in this is a sub-plot worthy of mention because it may in fact be the real reason the English and French are pulling out. They have a long-held belief that they are the financial powerhouses of the European game and largely responsible for the Heineken Cup being the world's richest tournament.
The English and French believe they have to share too much of the revenue with the Celts, hence the talks with the Africans. If agreement can't be reached over the future structure of the Heineken Cup, then the English and French want leverage and there is none better than to have an alternative plan with the Africans in mind.
Imagine a cross-border competition featuring the best English, French and South African sides; the three biggest domestic markets in the world could build a tournament with major commercial clout.
"I'm aware that some English clubs have been talking to South African franchises," says Peters. "But we have absolutely no indication that they (South Africans) want to go down that route. When we speak to the franchises, we get no indication they are unhappy with Super Rugby and the revenue streams from that competition are substantial."
The danger for Sanzar will rise if the English and French begin to put some details on the table. Super Rugby is lucrative for the South Africans but nor is it perfect in its current form.
There was widespread player dissatisfaction this year with the mid-competition break - not so much in the way it broke the momentum but because it required significant numbers of individuals to play at close to maximum intensity for 10 consecutive weeks.
The travel burden has been a perennial bugbear as well and Sanzar will be nervous if a serious, detailed proposal eventuates forcing the Africans to evaluate just how committed they are to Super Rugby.