NEXT year, we celebrate - if that's the appropriate sentiment - the 20th anniversary of rugby going professional.

You would have thought that, in that time, the people running the game would have stopped shooting their sport in the foot. You would be wrong.

The future of the Heineken Cup has been in doubt since the autumn, and the latest row between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four regional teams it helped to create a decade ago has contributed to throwing the bread-and-butter Celtic league - RaboDirect had already announced they are pulling out as sponsors - towards the same melting pot.

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It is a high-stakes game. Just as the English clubs have gambled everything on wresting control from the unions, claiming the clubs are much better suited to driving the commercial side of the sport, the Welsh are also in a battle for control that neither side can afford to lose.

Whoever wins, the innocent victims could be the others who comprise the Celtic league: the Scots, Irish and Italians. Though the Welsh union have promised to enter teams into all the competitions they are currently involved with, nobody knows which teams they will be, where they will play or, crucially, how strong they will be.

If the present franchises survive, they are going to be weakened, as leading players, fed up with the bickering and uncertainty, head to France or England. If there is no peace deal, the union has hinted it will cut ties with the existing regional teams, face down the inevitable court action, and create three new clubs starting as little better than development squads.

Elsewhere, under Alfredo Gavazzi, their new president, the Italian Federation is already muttering darkly about its role in the league, saying it can no longer afford the €3m it pays to be allowed in as well as the €6m it costs to subsidise the Zebre franchise. The only reason they joined was to expose their players to the best opponents in Europe. Remove one country's contribution and the pressure to write off the Celtic experiment as an expensive mistake and invest the money in domestic tournaments may become irresistible.

If the Scots and the Irish end up playing each other and weakened Welsh sides, it throws their financial calculations into turmoil. The Scots bring only £140,000 to the pot from their television deal, but even that could look overpriced if there are few meaningful games, while there is no guarantee the £3.2m deal struck in Wales would remain valid if there was such a seismic shift in quality.

The Welsh do not seem worried about the plight of their Celtic and Italian cousins. Their structure was exposed as dangerously flawed when PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm, wrote a damning report on the state of the game, blaming "ineffective management" plus over-reliance on benefactors.

It concluded that the model that had created the regions could not be sustained while the cost-cutting drive which has cut the player budget to £3.6m per team - £600,000 less than the Scottish teams currently get - has already weakened them and could have a knock-on effect on the national side.

The fact is that Welsh rugby officials have always had an emotional bias towards closer ties with England and cannot resist the lure of a £4m bribe and the promise of bigger crowds. Their antics, however, leave the rest in peril.