When I wrote about the Heineken/European Cup mess a fortnight ago, I may have been too pessimistic.
“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,” I said, “wishful thinking... It ain’t going to happen.” Well, I was wrong, or seem to have been wrong, for the FFR has done precisely that.
Admittedly, the RFU has been behaving like Brer Rabbit, lying low and saying “nuffin’”, and it’s also the case that the LRN (Ligue Nationale de Rugby), the association of French clubs, hasn’t backed down. Nevertheless, it is in a weak position because to go against its governing body, the FFR, and play in a tournament it hadn’t sanctioned, would be illegal according to French law as well as the regulations of the IRB. So, if the FFR holds its ground, the Anglo-French tournament (styled the Rugby Champions Cup) is dead in the water, at least as at present envisaged.
In the circumstances, the almost identical statements issued this week by the SRU, the WRU and the IRFU declaring that their clubs will not participate in any tournament which does not have the approval of the relevant national unions and the IRB, makes perfect sense. They are keeping their nerve. The suggestion from Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of (English) Premiership Rugby that the three unions will be on a collision course with their own clubs if they prevent them from joining the new tournament is so much hot air. Quite clearly he doesn’t understand the relationship between the Rabo clubs and their unions. Nevertheless, he is right to this extent: all our clubs want to play in a European competition, and so, of course, do the players. Scottish, Welsh, Irish and Italian clubs will all suffer if there is no European competition.
What we are seeing at the moment is a game of “chicken”. Most such games end badly for one of the participants. The Premiership Rugby spokesmen and English club owners have been trying to frighten the Celts and Italians with dire warnings of the consequences for us if we don’t give way and agree to join them – on terms, one presumes, dictated by them.
Actually, however, there are two games of “chicken” being played. The other one is between Premiership Rugby and the RFU. It is quite clear that the English clubs want to wrest control of the professional game away from their parent union. They insist that neither the RFU, nor, of course, the unions of the other Six Nations countries, should have anything to do with their proposed Rugby Champions Cup. The English power struggle is bedevilled by the fact that England will be hosting the Rugby World Cup two years from now, and the union daren’t take any action which might put its success at risk. From our point of view, this consideration means that the RFU should be eager to find a compromise acceptable to all parties.
The English clubs now declare that the time for negotiations is past. Their language has become more and more strident, which may, one hopes, indicate a loss of confidence. “Argument weak: shout louder” is old, if not necessarily good, advice.
Bruce Craig, the owner of Bath rugby club and deputy chairman of Premiership Rugby, says “the Heineken Cup is over, it’s finished. The Rugby Champions Cup is a way to save European rugby”. Given that European rugby has been endangered only by the determination of his organisation to kill off the Heineken, this is preposterous.
Premiership Rugby has got itself into a difficult position because of the TV deal it signed with BT Sport. In making this deal, it was selling what it was not entitled to sell – matches against clubs from other unions. This means that there is a conflict between Sky, which has had TV rights to the Heineken, and the new BT Sport. The details of Premiership Rugby’s contract with BT Sport are naturally confidential, but it is reasonable to suppose that it includes penalty clauses to be enforced if Premiership Rugby can’t deliver what it has been contracted to deliver.
While it might be tempting for ERC (European Rugby Cup), and the unions which hold loyally to it, simply to stand firm and leave Premiership Rugby to stew in the mess of its own making, this really isn’t in our, or indeed anybody’s, interest. In any negotiation it is a mistake to box the other side into a corner. We should, therefore, take the lead in proposing a compromise and be ready to give ground on several points. This will be all the easier to do if, as seems likely, the FFR holds firm and refuses to permit the French clubs to take part in the Rugby Champions Cup. So we should give way on the question of automatic qualification for the European tournament and agree to a different distribution of the money. ERC should also seek a way of extricating Premiership Rugby from its BT Sports contract, perhaps by negotiating the sharing of TV rights with Sky.
Without some such compromise, everybody will lose. As things stand, however, despite the English bluster which threatens disaster for the Rabo clubs, the chief loser may be the English ones.
That said, one other thing is clear. If Premiership Rugby and the LNR were to win, and establish the autonomy of the clubs, it wouldn’t be only the RFU and the FFR that were the losers. Allow the clubs full control of the professional game, and all the unions which are responsible for their national teams will be weakened. If there is no ERC running a cup like the Heineken, how long before the Six Nations tournament itself comes under attack? Certainly it’s something in which the richest club owners have little or no interest.
So perhaps we should tell the RFU that, if they surrender control of the professional game to the Premiership clubs, England may not be welcome in the Six Nations from 2014-15 onwards.