THE European rugby unions emerged from two days of meetings in Dublin insisting that they have made positive strides towards resolving the Heineken Cup stand-off, but the English clubs are not yet convinced.
The six unions of Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, France and Italy were represented at the past two days of talks to try to salvage a European competition in the wake of the walkout by English clubs, represented by Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL), and top French clubs under the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) banner.
The English and French clubs plan to launch a new “Rugby Champions Cup” next season.
Although the PRL and LNR were absent from Dublin, independent mediators Graham Mew and Stephen Drymer and RFU and WRU representatives informed the meeting of the Rival TV deals remain major hurdle in bid to make peace demands being made by the PRL and LNR. They issued a statement at the conclusion of the talks yesterday insisting that they were confident of taking back to the English and French clubs proposals that could break the impasse.
The unions agreed to key demands from the PRL and LNR, to restructure the European Cup to ensure the Celtic and Italian teams must qualify in future through the RaboDirect Pro12 league and to alter the distribution of revenues to ensure a third share for English and French clubs, to reflect their greater contribution to the revenue generation. But the PRL and LNR also want a new organising body with equal voting rights between the three leagues (ie one vote per league) to replace ERC’s governance, and that remains a moot point.
A statement issued by the mediators read: “Progress has been made on a number of issues relating to the future of European club rugby competition.
“The meeting concluded with consensus among those present on two key principles of competition format and distribution of revenues, and with agreement to meet again very shortly. There is consensus that there should
continue to be two professional European club rugby tournaments, with each tournament consisting of 20 clubs. A third tier European tournament should also be considered.”
The SRU and Italian federations have agreed to give up one guaranteed place in the European Cup. So, whichever of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and Treviso and Zebre, finish highest in the Pro12 qualify and the other only if they also finish in the league’s top seven. Should they fail, they would still have automatic access to Europe in the shape of the new second-tier cup, which would feature “up to 20 clubs”.
The SRU’s other chief fear, of losing about £2 million if one team dropped out of the main event, has also been eased with all parties pledging that, with the enhanced broadcast deals, no union would suffer any financial loss through the move to a new tournament structure.
However, therein lies the real iceberg. The PRL has signed a £152m deal with BT Vision to cover their teams in Europe from when the current deal expires next summer, while the ERC has agreed a new four-year deal with Sky.
The PRL are now wedded to BT Vision and insist that, no matter how many concessions are made by the European unions, they will not return to the Sky deal. The PRL restated their commitment last night to launching their own events in 2014, broadcast by BT Vision, with whatever teams agree to join them.
The next meeting with the mediators is to be held on Friday, 1 November, where the issues of control of the new competition and the broadcast deal will have to be tackled for any real promise to emerge.