THE identity of 19 of the clubs to compete in next season’s Challenge Cup has been confirmed but the final participant in European rugby’s second-tier competition is still to be unveiled after German club Heidelberger RK – who qualified as losing finalists in last season’s third tier Continental Shield – were excluded from the competition.
Tournament organisers EPCR explained in a press release that –
“On the basis that Dr Hans-Peter Wild, who is the majority shareholder of Stade Français Paris and the primary financial backer of Heidelberger RK, would be in a position to influence or to control the management or performance of two clubs in the same competition, EPCR decided that the German club could not participate. A replacement club will be announced shortly.”
Dr Wild is a 76-year-old businessman and lawyer who was born in Germany and is now a Swiss national. He is ranked 703rd in the world in Forbes Magazine’s rich list. He was the owner and chairman of Rudolf Wild GmbH & Co, which was set up by his father in 1931 and claims to be the world’s largest private manufacturer of natural flavour ingredients for food products and beverages. He sold the business in 2014 for $3billion in cash, but still owns Capri Sun, the fruit juice brand, which is consumed in more than 100 countries and generates an estimated annual revenue of $400 million.
In October 2007, Wild was instrumental in the formation of the Wild Rugby Academy, an institution aimed at developing the sport in Germany, based at a £30 million high-performance facility in Heidelberg.
A key area of concern for EPCR is the lack of clarity as to his role in supporting Heidelberger RK – one of only two professional teams in Germany – through a charitable trust.
Dr Wild bought and became chairman of Stade Francais – the former French champions whose glitter has faded since those gaudy days under Max Guazzini – in May 2017, after a proposed merger with Racing 92 collapsed when the players went on strike.
Heidelberger RK’s exclusion would seem to raise questions about whether Scottish professional sides and Irish provinces should be allowed to compete in the same competition, given that they have are owned by their respective unions.
A spokesman for EPCR explained last night that the competition rules make a distinction between governing bodies and private individuals owning clubs, based on the assumption that rugby unions do not have day-to-day involvement in the financial running of their subsidiaries whereas that is not as easily established in the case of characters such as Dr Wild.
The spokesman also explained that there is a recognition that clubs such as Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, or Munster and Leinster, have long established histories and rivalries which mitigate against their owners being able to ‘influence or to control the management or performance of two clubs in the same competition’.Error, group does not exist! Check your syntax! (ID: 3)
EPCR insist this would not have been an issue if Stade Francais had ended up in the Champions Cup this season, but because they both ended up in the Challenge Cup it was necessary to intervene in order to protect the ‘sporting integrity’ of the competition.
This episode will inevitably raise questions about double standards, with questions bound to be asked about whether EPCR have one rule for established, powerful and relatively rich unions, and another for emerging countries which must rely on the largesse of wealthy benefactors.
Given Dr Wild’s undoubted financial clout and clear commitment to developing rugby in Germany, and bearing in mind that the Guinness PRO14 is understood to be monitoring developments in central Europe with a view to adding a German component to their competition if the circumstances are right, this is a story which could have some legs.
Challenge Cup 2018/19 participants –
Gallagher Premiership Rugby (5): Sale Sharks, Northampton Saints, Harlequins, Worcester Warriors, Bristol Bears
Guinness PRO14 (5): Benetton Rugby, Ospreys, Connacht Rugby, Zebre Rugby Club, Dragons
TOP 14 (8): La Rochelle, Pau, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Bordeaux-Bègles, Agen, Stade Français Paris, Perpignan, Grenoble
Continental Shield (2): Enisei-STM, TBC