IT FEELS like a nightmare. You want to pinch yourself and wake up in an alternative world where European rugby is not slowly imploding before our very eyes.
In accordance with Sod’s Law, it is the brightest gem unearthed in the professional era, the Heineken Cup, which is teetering on the brink of extinction.
At the start of last week there was some hope that common sense and compromise would prevail but, after Tuesday’s announcement by the French and English clubs that they were planning a joint tournament, the balance tipped the European Cup towards the black hole of oblivion, the toxic result of years of arrogance, egos and perhaps just a little complacency.
The lack of leadership has been astonishing. The silence from Paris, Twickenham and the IRB’s own offices in Dublin has been deafening and it has led to where we are today, past the point of negotiating, at least if you listen to Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premier Rugby Limited (PRL represent England’s clubs).
“We’ve said all along we are not going to be in a competition run by ERC,” he said to this paper on Friday. “We’re not rowing back to any position. The fact is that those competitions will come to an end at the end of this season and everyone after that point needs to decide what they are doing. They [the English clubs] have made that decision and therefore now they need to decide upon and form the type of competitions that they are willing to play in from next season.
“I know again that people want to start from the status quo but the status quo doesn’t exist after the end of this season. We respect that people don’t agree with our ides about what the European competitions might look like and the way they are run but they also have to accept that we’ve properly served notice and that notice has been accepted. From our point of view the ERC is over. I don’t know how many ways we can say that to people.”
The PRL might have generated more sympathy for their position if they hadn’t gone about things with all the sensitivity of a bear in a blindfold. The French and English provide 26 of the 38 clubs that play in Europe’s twin competitions. Their moans about qualification rang true last season when fate threw Connacht and Zebre into the same Heineken pool while the likes of Gloucester, Perpignan, Wasps and Bath all slogged it out in the second tier Amlin Challenge Cup. Even Lions’ skipper Sam Warburton admitted adding an element of qualification would give an extra edge to the RaboDirect league.
But the profound split in Europe did not occur last Tuesday, it occurred last September when the PRL announced that it had signed a £152 million deal with BT Vision, the media giant which is trying to muscle in on Sky’s rugby turf. It is thought the deal is weighted heavily in favour of Europe which is one of the reasons the PRL are so keen to get something, anything, that could be construed as “European competition” on to the agenda.
There are whispers that BT Vision itself is a whole lot less fixated about the European side of the bargain. It has the English domestic game sewn up for the next few seasons and may not enforce its agreement with PRL if it means bad publicity. Even then it’s difficult to imagine PRL returning meekly to the ERC fold after burning so many bridges.
Just hours after PRL announced the BT deal, ERC trumpeted its own four-year agreement with Sky. The deal had been authorised unanimously by the board back in June of 2012 and that board included the representatives from the English and French clubs so McCafferty is a little disingenuous when he makes the following claim: “Our perspective on that is that the Sky contract has nothing to do with us. We’ve been very clear on that, we don’t think ERC entered into that contract correctly and the French clubs believe the same thing.”
But wasn’t he guilty of selling European rights to BT that were not his to sell?
“No,” comes the reply. “From our perspective we were selling rights to a competition that would be formed in the future. That contract had to deal with the fact of whether English clubs are in that competition or whether other clubs are in that competition.” The two TV deals, with Sky and BT, meant that both sides became entrenched in their positions.
But this fight is about more than just TV money. This argument has become bitter because it is all about power, who controls the game in Europe, the clubs or the unions. It is a fight for the soul of rugby with far-reaching consequences.
The clubs want to organise and run the European competitions and that is one of the main reasons why the unions are presenting a united front, not one breaking ranks. PRL has yet to outline the details of the BT Vision deal so how could they expect the SRU, IRFU and FIR to sign up their teams without knowing either the size of the cake or who is to be trusted with carving it up? The new competition has been initiated and will be run by the clubs so the unions were never going to sanction it, especially when McCafferty presented it as a fait accompli and attempted to bounce everyone into it.
The ultimate winner of this stand-off will control the European competitions and this stuff matters. If the club game gains ascendancy the international game will suffer in the long-term as we follow a path forged by soccer. Already the Heineken Cup is a genie that some wish had never been allowed out of the bottle, its success threatening to undermine even a grand old dame like the Six Nations which finances the whole of European rugby.
The argument that French/English clubs provide most of the teams is true but you could also argue that, in the long term, the unions have a broader mandate, to protect and promote the game rather than just their own selfish interests. It is an insinuation that McCafferty is quick to repudiate.
“If we had only been interested in the interest of English clubs, we would have gone straight away to the Anglo/French competition. From a purely financial and commercial point of view that would have produced the biggest returns for the English clubs.”
What McCafferty does not admit is that any “European” competition with just two of the six big countries would be almost meaningless. It’s impossible to imagine any future “European” champions having the gall to make any such claim in the absence of Munster and Leinster who have lifted five of the last eight Heineken Cups. McCafferty is desperate for someone to break ranks and lend his Anglo/French venture some much-needed credibility, which is why it probably won’t happen.
If BT Vision does not quietly back out of the room, there is one last hope of saving something recognisable as the European Cup. The French and English clubs need permission from their governing bodies to set up a cross border competition but so far neither union has shown any stomach for getting into the ring and knocking some sense into their rebellious clubs.
The cast list
Premier Rugby Ltd chief
executive Mark McCafferty
Had he got the Celts/Italians on board before signing the all-important BT Vision deal McCafferty, pictured below, just might have carried the day. Instead he presented them with a fait accompli and suffered the predictable backlash.
Ligue Nationale de Rugby
president Paul Goze
Goze, pictured at bottom, looks like a fixer for the Corleone family. He took over LNR in November of 2012 and their stance has hardened since. “We’re not threatening not to participate. We’re saying we will not participate,” he says.
Insist everything and anything is up for negotiation but any concessions are meaningless until TV rights are sorted and neither PRL nor ERC are likely to abandon BT Vision or Sky respectively. May end up the biggest losers.
Irish RFU chief executive Philip Browne
Has become the de facto spokesman for the Celtic cause after calling the PRL’s modus operandi “a deplorable way of doing business” and referring to McCafferty’s declaration that the Celts were stonewalling as “a downright lie”.
Never mind Europe, they are currently debating the merits of the RaboDirect, which is demanding ¤3 million to accommodate two Italian clubs. If they are not guaranteed a Heineken place then, the thinking goes, they may as well revert to a domestic league and apply to join the Anglo/French party.
Why doesn’t Twickenham do something, the Celts mutter under their breath. But the RFU have a long-standing agreement in place with clubs giving the national coach unprecedented access to his elite players and the RFU don’t want to spoil the entente cordiale… especially with a home World Cup coming up.
The English and French clubs need the permission of the governing bodies to set up a cross-border competition but the FFR want to make changes to the Top 14 including increased player access for the national coach and a reduction in the number of foreign players. They may offer the cross-border as a quid pro quo.
Bernard Lapasset, chairman of the International Rugby Board
… and former president of the FFR. Will be especially keen to keep the peace and is presumably trying to knock his fellow countrymen’s heads together. He would be embarrassed by a collapse of the European Cup on his watch.
Scottish Rugby Union
Can ill-afford the loss of the ¤4.9m they received from ERC last season. In a twist Jeffrey Archer would hesitate to pen, they signed up a new jersey sponsor for Edinburgh and Glasgow for this season. BT SPORT is now displayed on their shirts when it was BT Vision’s determination to muscle Sky out of rugby that gave the PRL their opening.