Allan Massie: English proposals for ‘fixing’ Heineken Cup sound difficult to swallow
IF IT ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This is the view of most rugby followers in Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Wales with regard to the Heineken Cup.
It is widely regarded as the best thing to have happened in northern hemisphere rugby since France was re-admitted to the international championship after the 1939-45 war.
Unfortunately, the English and, to a lesser extent, the French think the Heineken now needs re-fixing. They believe the Rabo league clubs have an advantage because there is no relegation in that league and ten of the twelve clubs are guaranteed a place in the Heineken – a guarantee extended to only six clubs in England and six in France. Consequently, they say, the Rabo clubs don’t have to field their strongest teams in all league matches, but can practise rotation and rest players, thus giving them an unfair advantage in the Heineken.
The natural – and often-aired – response is that the English clubs had no complaints about the format when they were winning the cup, and are squawking now only because it has recently been dominated by Leinster and Munster. Undoubtedly, there is some truth in this, and there is much exaggeration in the claim that the dice are loaded in favour of the Rabo league clubs. It is not, after all, as if clubs in the English Premiership – or the French Top 14 – always field their first-choice XV in league matches, and don’t practise rotation. Moreover, in any season, at most three clubs in the Premiership are ever in danger of being relegated – and these are quite often clubs that haven’t qualified for the Heineken.
We argue, correctly, that the Heineken is an association of countries, not of leagues. The ERC board has two representatives from each of the Six Nations, not from the three leagues. Moreover, clubs from Scotland, Ireland and Wales were competing in it before what became known as the Celtic League was set up, as were Italian clubs before they were admitted to that league. If we dissolved the Rabo league, or chose to leave it, we would still be entitled to participate in the Heineken.
England and France argue that since they contribute more than the other nations in terms of the size of the TV audience, they are entitled to an even larger share of the pot than they get now. There is some reason in this argument, but it ignores the reality – which is that it was the enthusiasm of Irish supporters and the performances of Munster that enabled the Heineken really to take off and become the absorbing and popular spectacle it is now. Moreover, it is the mix of six nations that gives it its character.
Where the English Premier League clubs have gone very wrong is in signing a new TV deal with BT. They are of course entitled to sell their own league matches as they please, but they are not entitled to sell the TV rights to matches involving clubs from other countries. They seem to have concluded this BT deal without any consultation, and this is as stupid as it is arrogant. Their idea seems to be that the BT deal is worth so much that everyone else will obediently – and greedily – fall into line.
Yet they cannot have been ignorant of the fact that the ERC was on the point of renewing BSkyB’s Heineken contract. Sky has mostly covered the Heineken very well, and even in commerce there is a case for remaining loyal to those who have proved good partners.
The English and French also want to cut the number of clubs in the Heineken from 24 to 20 – with six from each league, plus the holders of the Heineken and the Amlin Challenge Cup. Apart from the fact that this guarantees a bigger representation from the English Premier and the French Top 14, it is difficult to see the reason for the change, unless it is also proposed that there should be four pools of five clubs with the top two in each going on to the quarter-finals, rather than, as now, six pools of four with the best two runners-up joining the winners of each pool in the knock-out stages. The present set-up is admittedly a bit awkward, but it seems to work well enough. If it ain’t broke…
Nevertheless, it is likely that some fixing will take place and that a compromise will be found. We may resent this – likewise the Irish, Welsh and Italians – because we will have found ourselves forced to practise appeasement, and the English clubs will be rewarded for their bullying and attempt at bribery. The Welsh will probably give way first, because the Welsh regions’ difficulties are the greatest, their need more urgent – as the departure of so many Welsh stars for French clubs demonstrates. Yet two things are essential: that control of the tournament remains vested in the ERC, and that all six nations should be represented in the Heineken. These are points on which the English clubs must be required to give way. Happily the RFU is, to put it mildly, less than enamoured of the way the Premier League clubs have set about things, and the RFU’s chairman, Bill Beaumont, is the man best capable of brokering an agreement. He may do so with soft words, or, if necessary, by banging heads together in the manner of the abrasive – no quarter asked – lock forward he used to be.
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