SCOTLAND’S professional rugby teams are ready to do battle for one Heineken Cup place from next season and remain confident a new accord will be agreed with English and French clubs to enhance the competition.
Scotland had three teams in European rugby’s elite tournament when the SRU first entered in 1996-97 but lost one two years later when Edinburgh and Borders merged and Glasgow and Caledonia joined forces. The quota has remained at two since but those spots have been guaranteed for the past 16 years.
Now, with the power of England and France having grown – they have 13 teams in the 24-team, six-nation event and ten of the 18 votes at European Rugby Cup (ERC) board level – Scotland appear ready to give up one guaranteed place in the hope that Glasgow and Edinburgh will both qualify by finishing in the top six of the RaboDirect Pro12.
The latest move in the battle for control of European rugby, came with English and French clubs insisting that negotiations with ERC were over and drawing up plans for their own “Rugby Champions Cup”.
Such a competition would be bankrolled by a deal already signed by the English clubs in the form of Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL), with BT Vision.
However, information leaked on the internet appears to reveal that BT Vision’s £152 million offer is dependent on at least four nations being involved in the new European tournament, and that the money would not be forthcoming for a purely Anglo-French event such as the one the PRL insist they are planning.
The Celtic and Italian rugby unions have stated that they will not permit their teams to join a new competition without the authorisation of the International Rugby Board, which includes all of the ERC unions.
Grant Best, a senior producer with BT Vision, is on record as saying: “Our view is that, heading into 2014-15, we want to be part of that [European] competition, whatever that competition becomes. We did a deal for what we thought would involve that tournament.”
ERC Chief Executive Derek McGrath was clear at yesterday’s Glasgow launch of this season’s Heineken Cup that concessions must form part of the next round of negotiations, set for 23 and 24 October.
McGrath said: “There is a willingness to shift from original positions of no change to ‘we will now discuss change’.
“I am very confident that we can find an outcome for everybody, recognising the valid interests and issues on all sides.
“ERC have made huge progress in developing these competitions in a sporting sense, from an entertainment point of view and, critically, in terms of its financial value. In its 18 years, £520m has been distributed to European club rugby to aid its development. This year alone we’ve distributed £44m to clubs across Europe. We have had to put in place plans for next season, even though we haven’t yet got agreement, so we know already that we’ll be adding another £10m to that next year assuming that we get that agreement. There is nothing we have seen in any alternative proposal that would suggest it can be done better.”
Under the ERC umbrella, the RFU and French, Italian, Welsh, Irish and Scottish rugby unions have agreed their own, enhanced four-year deal with Sky and so the PRL’s ability to renegotiate the BT Vision deal may be the crux of any new agreement. But, if that can be done, McGrath is confident the English and French clubs can agree a new tournament format with ERC. He added: “What has been put out in terms of a new competition is nothing that is going to prosper if the interests of the few are seen to be served over the interests of the many.
“The only way we will find an outcome is by working together. Any other outcome will not achieve what has been built up in 18 years of blood and sweat and tears. There is 18 years of intellectual property in the people who sit round the table and the bodies they represent. And that is a message I will repeat because, until we get that focus, we will not get the agreement that we need. We are 15 months into a two-year negotiating period. We believe there is not only an opportunity but an obligation and responsibility.”