ENGLISH and French clubs appear still to be hovering on the brink of a withdrawal from the Heineken Cup, but former Scotland prop Ian McLauchlan emerged from a meeting with his former England opponent Peter Wheeler yesterday convinced that the competition will remain and with competitive Scottish teams.
The main protagonists in the latest rumpus over European competition came together in Dublin, but despite fuel being poured on the fire in a statement from Wheeler’s Premiership Rugby organisation on Tuesday, the meeting passed off in relative calm. A standard ERC meeting, not convened to debate the new European Accord, the warring factions agreed that negotiations over changes to the Heineken Cup would return to the table at a special meeting in the coming weeks.
The current accord runs out next year and Premiership Rugby, representing England’s top clubs, and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, fronted at the ERC meetings by René Bouscatel, the Toulouse club president, have returned to tactics of brinkmanship in attempting to force the Celtic nations and Italy to accept their demands for a new share of the competition monies and new qualification format.
They put a major spoke into the negotiations last year by announcing BT Sport as a new broadcaster of English games in the Heineken Cup, games controlled by the unions and already sold to Sky. And on Tuesday, Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty provoked further unrest by stating that they were actively seeking a breakaway competition.
“We have had 15 months of discussions which haven’t produced an outcome,” he announced. “Our clubs have been very strong in saying they need clarity. If we can’t reach an outcome involving all the European clubs, we at least have to set up a competition involving the English and French clubs. If others want to come into that competition then we can look at that, but we have to get on and prepare.”
Saracens’ ambitious owner Nigel Wray, added: “It [Heineken Cup] is a Union competition, set up by the Unions, but it is the clubs taking part in it … so we want it to be a club-controlled competition.
“We are setting up our own competition which one hopes the other nations will join. Do we want the rest of the nations in it? Of course we do. But it has got to be a competition that more accurately reflects the revenue generated by the various nations.”
McLauchlan, the former SRU president and now a non-executive director on the board, does not believe that that is realistic. He has represented Scotland throughout the ERC discussions on the Heineken Cup, and was in Dublin yesterday, as was his former Barbarians team-mate and England opponent Wheeler.
“We have a friendship and that hasn’t changed,” McLauchlan told The Scotsman.
“We are in limbo at the moment, but I’m happier now than I was this morning after reading those comments [from Wray and Premiership Rugby].
“The Heineken Cup is going to be played this season and I believe that there will be a Heineken Cup next year and in future years. I’m an optimist. Negotiation is about give and take and when we get down to discussing the issues again very soon I expect there to be give and take and an agreement reached. It’s the best rugby competition in the world and they [English and French clubs] are not going to throw that away.
“Today’s meeting was positive. There was recognition that we all have to come to the table and negotiate and we [the SRU] are actively involved in those discussions.”
ERC issued a statement saying that all parties had reaffirmed their commitment to forming a new accord, and that ERC would organise a fresh meeting to debate it on a day to suit all parties. They reiterated that French and English clubs could not form a new competition outside the jurisdiction of the International Rugby Board – an organisation involving the same member unions who hold shares in ERC.
ERC concluded: “It was pointed out that there was a range of proposals made by stakeholders, none of which were acceptable to all parties, and it was agreed that the negotiations towards a definitive solution needed to begin again in earnest.”
In short, there remain two clear areas of debate that need to be overcome if the threat of a breakaway is to be averted.
The first one is the demand of English and French clubs for a bigger share of the revenues. The Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Italian clubs share 52 per cent of the pot while the English and French clubs receive 24 per cent each. The English and French want a third each which could wipe £2million-plus off the income of the Celtic nations and Italy. That is a hugely contentious issue.
The second is the desire that all teams must qualify to gain entry. At present, the top six clubs in the English Premiership and French Top 14 qualify automatically, with a seventh-placed club from one of those countries regularly picking up an extra spot for winning the previous season’s Amlin Challenge Cup.
At present, the top three Welsh regions and the top three Irish provinces in the RaboDirect PRO12 qualify automatically, with an extra spot available to their fourth team through the Amlin route. However, the bone of contention lies with Scotland and Italy, whose two professional teams qualify as of right irrespective of where they finish in the RaboDirect PRO12.
The English and French want that changed to simply the top six in the PRO12 qualifying, irrespective of where they come from. There has been movement to the point where if Scotland and Italy fail to have a side in the top six, they would still be guaranteed a Heineken Cup place for their best finisher in a new 20-team tournament, reduced from the current 24-team format.
The SRU’s Chief Executive Mark Dodson told The Scotsman in June that he would accept qualification, providing the SRU did not lose out financially. The Scottish game relies hugely on Six Nations and Heineken Cup revenues, which currently amounts to around £5 million for involvement in the Heineken Cup.
Dodson’s concern is that were one of the Scottish teams to finish seventh in the PRO12 and drop to the Amlin Challenge Cup, that it would lose the union £2.5 million per year, which would almost certainly mean a budget cut for Glasgow and Edinburgh. The SRU has struggled to keep its head above water since the advent of professionalism and this year posted a six-figure profit, after investing an extra £2 million to make the pro teams more competitive, but retains a £11 million debt.
Big two out of line with ERC stance
Heineken Cup chiefs claim all parties – including Premiership Rugby and their French counterparts – have “reaffirmed” commitment towards negotiations regarding a new tournament agreement.
It follows the latest in a long series of meetings of European Rugby Cup directors in Dublin yesterday, when attendees included Premiership Rugby’s Peter Wheeler and Rene Bouscatel of France’s Ligue Nationale de Rugby.
The summit came less than 24 hours after English and French clubs announced plans for an alternative competition next season.
They served notice last year of their intention to quit the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup when an existing agreement expires next summer.
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty said on Tuesday: “We have had 15 months of discussions which haven’t produced an outcome.
“There hasn’t been a meeting since May, and there has been no urgency over the summer. Our clubs have been very strong in saying they need clarity.
“If we can’t reach an outcome involving all the European clubs, we at least have to set up a competition involving the English and French clubs.
“If others want to come into that competition then we can look at that, but we have to get on and prepare.”
ERC, however, issued a statement headlined “All parties reaffirm commitment to ERC negotiations”.
“Surprise was expressed at the timing and content of yesterday’s media announcements by the LNR and Premiership Rugby, and representatives of both bodies were invited to explain their positions,” read the statement.