ENGLAND’S Rugby Football Union says it is still confident European competition can be salvaged for next season, with chief executive Ian Ritchie last night claiming the alternative would be vastly inferior.
The future of the Heineken Cup is in grave doubt with England’s clubs refusing to participate in a competition run by European Rugby Cup and actively pursuing the option of adding Welsh regions to an expanded Aviva Premiership.
Ritchie is optimistic that the obstacles preventing an agreement on a new tournament involving all six competing nations – framework, voting on commercial rights and broadcasting rights – can be overcome.
Unofficial talks between the RFU and the other five unions are taking place on a daily basis, with Twickenham officials ignoring their snub that resulted in exclusion from a key meeting in Dublin on 21 November.
It was during those discussions last month that progress previously made in deciding on aspects such as format, financial distribution and notice terms were effectively torpedoed by the other unions.
Ritchie is convinced there is still a “deal to be done” as he seeks to prevent the disintegration of European rugby that would inevitably accompany the formation of an Anglo-Welsh league.
“We must understand the consequences of failure – they are not a good thing,” Ritchie said. “We are in a better place if we have a proper pan-European club competition.
“The alternatives are lesser to the ones we believe we should be working towards.
“All parties want to get a pan-European competition. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t want that. Everyone wants it, the question is how we get there.
“We owe it to the fans, players and everybody involved in rugby to make sure we get this agreed. All of us have an obligation to bust a gut to reach an agreement.
“We need to get in a room as a matter of urgency and get proper, focused discussions to agree on the outstanding matters.
“That’s what we’ve been trying to do because the prize of getting it right is infinitely preferable to the alternatives.”
Ritchie denies that England’s prospects at the 2015 World Cup would be harmed if Stuart Lancaster’s players were to miss out on European competition in the build-up to the tournament.
“We spend a lot of time talking about how much rugby players play and would it be better to have a rest,” Ritchie said.
“You want to have a European competition and that’s helpful. For a period prior to the World Cup I don’t think it’s the be-all and end-all.
“I don’t think it’s damaging per se to England’s performance at the World Cup.”
The key battleground in the dispute is ERC’s involvement and if the RFU could persuade its counterpart unions that it should be replaced, the main stumbling block to staging European competition next season will have been removed.
Prior to the meeting on 21 November, a consensus emerged that the Six Nations should succeed ERC, with the English and French clubs accepting it as the alternative organising body for European competition.
Critically, however, the French Rugby Federation is unconvinced by that option.
Ritchie’s belief is that, if reconciliation can be reached on the framework and commercial voting rights, the battle between broadcasters Sky and BT Sport can be resolved.
He also dismissed the suggestion that the RFU is in thrall to Premiership clubs, pointing out that its agreement over the release of England players expires in 2016. “It’s essential for the good of the game that the RFU and PRL [Premiership Rugby Limited] have a good and strong relationship. That’s absolutely the right thing to do,” Ritchie said. “We don’t agree with everything, but the relationship is crucial and is in a pretty good place.
“This idea we’re cowed in some way because we’re worried about access to players for the World Cup is rubbish. It’s nonsense.
“Why wouldn’t we want to be close to our clubs? It’s not a question of being cowed.”
THE OBSTACLES TO A NEW DEAL
RUGBY Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie is confident the Heineken Cup can be saved. He believes the obstacles preventing an agreement being reached are framework, voting on commercial rights and broadcasting rights. Here he outlines his view on each.
“This issue is still clearly a problem. The options of European Rugby Cup, the Six Nations or a new body have been discussed at various times. We believe the Six Nations option was a perfectly acceptable solution to the problem. Many of us felt it was a good solution. If the French felt it wasn’t, we must address that.
“ERC was actually born out of the Six Nations to develop a club competition. ERC and Six Nations shareholding are exactly the same.”
“What had been discussed in detail was that the RaboDirect Pro12 teams would get a protected financial distribution for five years of a minimum of £16.77million per annum, rising to £20.12m if the revenue raised from the tournament climbed above £50.3m.
“If you want that protected with a guarantee that is underwritten by the English and French, you can’t take that guarantee and then say you want a majority say on how the rights are controlled. Either you split the commercial rights three ways or you take the guarantee.”
BROADCASTING RIGHTS SKY v BT SPORT
“You can’t resolve the broadcasting situation until you can say here’s the product. Let’s focus on getting our act together, finalise the competition and then address the situation with the broadcaster.
“If we don’t resolve the broadcast situation, [it will be] because nobody will have the perfect solution.”