Euro fallout already felt in Ireland

Date published: September 19 2013

The dispute over the future of European Rugby is already having causing ramifications in the world game, especially in Ireland.

The dispute over the future of European Rugby is a complicated and frequently changing one that is likely to rumble on for many more months – but the outcome and fallout will undoubtedly have major ramifications for the game.

Just moments after being unveiled as the Irish Rugby Union Players Association Chairman, Leinster's Rob Kearney was hastily forced to comment on the consequences of the impending demise of the Heineken Cup as we know it.

The Lions full-back takes over the role vacated by Jonny Sexton after the 28-year-old became part of the increasingly growing British and Irish contingent plying their trade in the lucrative and highly attractive Top 14 in France.

The fly-half was one of eighteen players to swap the Aviva Premiership or PRO12 for the glowing lights of the continent during the close-season, adding to the 250 foreign players already on the books at the fourteen top-flight clubs.

Any tournament involving the English and French clubs in place of the Heineken Cup will have “detrimental” effects for the Celtic nations according to Kearney with the lure of France becoming harder to resist.

“I think players in Ireland would become much more attracted to moving abroad and they will be sought after that little bit more” Kearney told the media.

“I think it would be detrimental, to ourselves [Ireland], Wales and Scotland but especially the Irish, because we're a stronger provincial nation at this moment in time.”

Leinster have enjoyed huge success on both the European and domestic fronts in recent years, winning three Heineken Cup crowns in four years as well as lifting last year's Amlin Challenge Cup.

Silverware not only reflects triumph and accomplishment on the field but also off it.

The assurance of European competition and in Leinster's case, silverware, has enabled the PRO12 sides to attract the calibre of players they'd be otherwise unable to afford or even dream about.

Southern hemisphere stars such as Doug Howlett, Felipe Contepomi, Rocky Elsom and Justin Marshall have all enjoyed stints in the PRO12 in recent seasons, signings only made possible by the financial rewards from success in the Heineken Cup.

It's a measure of the high-regard the competition is held in all over the world that the stature of the aforementioned names make the journey north to have a crack at the biggest prize in the club game.

There are no doubts that the PRO12 has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, largely thanks to the increased revenue stream provided by the ERC's competitions.

However, the recent developments coupled with the continued exodus of players to France will prove fatal for the future of club rugby in the Celtic nations.

The days of half-empty stadiums, a league with little or no public attraction and passionless matches, which were seemingly consigned to the past, will once again come to the fore.

Regardless of the outcome of the continued discussions and what direction the European Cup goes in, the PRO12 and Premiership cannot simply contend with the lure of the Top 14.

Whether or not the powers of the game in Britain and Ireland admit it or not, the reality is that the majority of players will find it extremely difficult to turn down a big-money offer from abroad.

Financially, there is no comparison.

Jonny Wilkinson, who is just nine months from hanging up his boots, still commands the biggest pay packet in the game with a monthly wage of over £48,000 at Toulon – a figure which isn't far short of the average salary of a player playing in the Premiership or indeed PRO12.

The news that Ulster's Ruan Pienaar is set to become the latest to swap these shores for the continent is another damning reminder that our leagues continue to lose their outstanding performers.

Where does that leave the PRO12 clubs? In purely financial terms, the demise of the Heineken Cup would not only cost them around £1 million according to reports but also give them even less chance of keeping hold of their star players, whether they're home-grown or big-name signings.

It's a hugely complicated quarrel with a resolution no closer to being found, but what's certain is that this is the biggest crisis in the modern professional era.

The Top 14 has threatened the future of the Premiership and PRO12 for several seasons with its wealthy investors and astronomical wages but the demise of the biggest northern hemisphere club competition could prove to be a hurdle too high to overcome.

For the passionate supporters, hard-working volunteers and those who have done so much to develop the game here, these are deeply worrying times.

By Ryan Bailey in Ireland