Writing here on Thursday, Tom English got it right. We must, he said, “avoid the Doomsday scenario…Whether it’s a reconstituted Heineken Cup governed by the ERC or a reconstituted European Cup controlled, in essence, by the English and French, the Scots have got to be there.”.
This is the reality that must be accepted by the SRU. To stick our heads in the sand in the hope that, somehow or other, the English and French clubs will back down, and say, “sorry, boys, we realise we’ve got it wrong”, is ridiculous. To cling to the hope that the RFU and the FFR will call their member clubs to order, and tell them they’re out of line, is wishful thinking. Theoretically, they can do this. They have the law on their side. The IRB regulations make it clear that any competition must be approved by national Unions. But it ain’t going to happen. As Tom pointed out, the World Cup is being staged in England two years from now. The RFU is not going to get into a fight with Premiership clubs.
We should admit that the English and French clubs have some reasonable grievances. Their clubs have to qualify for the Heineken by coming in the top six of their very competitive national leagues. The Scots and Italian clubs don’t have to qualify at all, the Welsh and Irish ones barely have to do so – and this from a league from which nobody can be relegated. We may counter this argument by pointing out that the ERC was formed by the unions, not the clubs; and that the terms of engagement in the Heineken were in place before the Celtic League (Magners, later RaboDirect 12) was in existence. This is true, but the English and French clubs aren’t going to turn round and say, “sorry, we’d forgotten that.”
They complain about the distributions of Heineken revenue. England and France generate most of it, they say. Yet each gets only 24 per cent, while the other four unions get 13 per cent each. Their argument here is less cogent than the previous one about qualification, but it is not entirely without merit. As they see it, six, or in some years seven, English clubs share 24 per cent of the takings; two Scottish ones and two Italian clubs, qualifying by right rather than performance, share 13 per cent.
We have our own legitimate grievance too. By signing a contract with BT Vision, while the ERC’s contract with Sky is still running, the English Premiership clubs were selling what wasn’t theirs to sell: that is, matches in the European competition. If we had been able to detach the French clubs from their English alliance, then the English ones would have been out on a limb, unable to deliver what they had agreed with their new TV partners that they would deliver. But it seems that the French clubs are sticking to their pact with the English ones, and unless the FFR attempts to discipline them – and succeeds in that attempt – the Anglo-French league will go ahead as planned or, if you prefer, threatened.
There is much that is objectionable about their behaviour and their proposal. A European club tournament should not be the plaything of the club owners. This isn’t the case with football – even though the owners of the big English football clubs are much richer than the owners of English rugby ones. The Champions League isn’t the property of the clubs, but of Uefa.
Some of the statements coming from England are ludicrous. For instance, Quentin Smith, the chairman of Premiership Rugby, spoke of the importance of making sure that English players are “in competition against teams that contain players whom they might meet on the international stage”, which is, of course, precisely what the Heineken in its present form provides.
We may resent what we see as bullying. We may think some of the arguments advanced by Premiership Rugby to be dubious, and others absurd. But we are in the position of the Pacifist in Belloc’s epigram: “Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight, But Roaring Bill, who killed him, thought it right.”
There is one unanswerable fact: we need to participate in any European competition. Indeed, such participation is even more necessary for us than it is for the English and French clubs. They could get by without it, because they have strong national competitions. We don’t. The Four Nations Rabo league may often feature good rugby and exciting matches, but it is, nevertheless, less attractive to sponsors and broadcasters than the English Premiership or the French Top 14. Without the prospect of European competition, more Scottish players would move away.
So we are going to have to give way. We must accept compromises because it is in our interest to do so. The professional game in Scotland remains fragile. Without European competition it would be bust. As Tom English says, we “must avoid the Doomsday scenario”. It’s time to look unwelcome reality in the face. If you can’t beat them, join them.