A possible breakaway by South Africa from the current Super Rugby competition under SANZAR to join a new European based trans-border tournament is gathering steam.
The threat of Premiership Rugby and their French Counterparts, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, breaking away from the Heineken Cup competition could have serious implications for the current SANZAR alliance of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Premiership Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby served notice last year of their intent to break away from the Heineken Cup amid some unhappiness regarding the number of teams in the competition as-well as the qualification process and distribution of funds.
According to European Rugby Cup (ERC) directors all parties, including Premiership Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby ‘reaffirmed’ their commitment to the Heineken Cup in a meeting held in Dublin last week, but it is understood that this commitment is dependent on various changes within the competition and competition format which at this stage seems unlikely.
What may change under a new Anglo-French-driven regime however is the current structure of the Premiership season to be played in its entirety between September and early February, which in turn, would leave the way clear for a “new” Heineken Cup to be staged between March and June, possibly even involving provincial sides from South Africa from 2015-16 onwards.
“Potentially the Premiership Final could be before the Six Nations,” a Premiership source told the Guardian.
“Then, if you ran a new Heineken Cup with the South Africans involved between March and June, that would be a pretty good competition for four months
“You’ll hear people not just talking about a new European Cup but a new trans-border competition.”
The clubs, emboldened by the extra cash available from their £152m television rights deal with BT Sport and having given notice of their intention to withdraw from the existing ERC-run Heineken Cup at the end of the season, are adamant their plans will not be stymied by national unions or the International Rugby Board.
A senior English club figure said: “There are still some people who will say: ‘You can’t have a cross-border competition without the permission of the French Federation, the RFU and the IRB.’ Those people are living in the past.
“What has changed the whole landscape is the BT Sport deal because suddenly the clubs have got their own broadcaster and are bringing their own money into the game. The French will also be selling their equivalent TV rights shortly. The unions can huff and puff as much as they like but the reality is that the unions are not going to stop a competition bringing in £30m to £40m to rugby.”
There is also a widespread view that the Welsh, Scots and Irish cannot afford not to be part of any new competition, even if it is club-run.
“My guess is that next year there will be a European competition with all those sides involved and it could even be called the Heineken Cup,” the source predicted. “The English and French clubs will play together next year and the Scots, Welsh, Irish and Italians are welcome to join us.”