Heineken Cup is needed to grow rugby, says Andy Robinson
SCOTLAND coach Andy Robinson has called for the Heineken Cup to continue in its current format after English clubs turned up the pressure in their bid to break it up.
He backed organisers ERC’s defence of the tournament after Aviva Premiership club owners, unhappy at the growing dominance of Celtic teams, vowed to withdraw when the current agreement ends in 2014 and set up a new competition with French sides.
On Tuesday, just hours before ERC – a body of representatives from the Scottish, English, Welsh, Irish, French and Italian unions – announced a new four-year TV deal with Sky, the English clubs’ umbrella organisation, Premiership Rugby, revealed that they had agreed a £152m four-year contract with BT Vision to provide coverage of their breakaway tournament, on top of a new deal with BT to screen the Premiership.
BT Vision chief executive Marc Watson yesterday threw more petrol on the fire by revealing: “We are looking to set up, or at least help set up, a dazzling new European tournament with a fantastic new format with, we hope, all the best clubs. We’ve secured from the English Premiership the rights to that for the UK. That tournament will be the successor to the Heineken Cup, which is a very successful tournament. The Heineken Cup, under its current contract, has another season to run and that will be the end of it, and we are looking to set up a brand new tournament.
“We saw in rugby an opportunity to own a sport exclusively, certainly at club level, and the rights that we’ve bought give us an opportunity to do that. We are hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2015 in the UK. It’s a great opportunity in the two years running up to that, we think, to grow the sport. It’s a sport that has got a long way to go, but we were attracted by the idea of growing with it and helping it to grow in the UK.”
The Heineken Cup has become arguably the leading club/provincial competition in world rugby, with bigger crowds and more widespread interest than even the reinvented “Super Rugby” of the southern hemisphere.
Robinson was the coach of Bath in 1998 when they became the first British or Irish club to win the European title, however, he then fell victim to the English club owners’ first European boycott. It was staged the following year, ensuring Bath could not defend the cup, due to English clubs’ protest at the agreed equal split of ERC income between the six competing unions.
Robinson insisted that he did not wish to comment on the aims of or methods deployed by English clubs but he did back up the ERC in the assertion that the Heineken Cup in its present form was crucial to developing rugby across Europe.
“There are various discussions that are going on and there is another important meeting next week, for people to be able to discuss what’s happening with the Heineken Cup post-2014. It’s not for me to comment on that [English clubs’ stance].
“What is important for me is that we have two Scottish teams in the Heineken Cup. They [English clubs] have got to do what they have to do, but the European tournament has grown and is a really exciting tournament to be involved in, and for Scottish teams to have the success of
Edinburgh last year, and see nearly 40,000 at Murrayfield – that is what the Heineken Cup can do for teams.
“You want the same growth in Italy, as we’ve seen with Leinster and Munster, and the attraction that is there because of Heineken Cup success. So, from my side, with the development of Heineken, you want to keep it going forward and it needs the very best teams to do that.”
Those last few words are at the heart of the dispute. English and French clubs believe that “the very best clubs” are not currently contesting the Heineken Cup because only a maximum of seven English and French clubs can qualify for the pool stages, while Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Italian clubs are given free entry without qualification.
Wales have four teams, Ireland three who qualify automatically and Scotland and Italy two, which the ERC believe ensures a good share of teams and the opportunity to use the competition to help grow rugby in each of those countries. English and French clubs want qualification from the Celtic League so that only the top eight qualify, along with an increase to eight qualifiers from their countries.
The sub-text, however, is that England had only one team in the last eight this year, two last year and one the year before that. They believe their players are forced through more gruelling seasons as they play virtually every week, while the Celts rotate players throughout the league campaign.
The English claim their teams are not as fresh in the Heineken Cup and believe that, by introducing qualification for Europe to the RaboDirect PRO12, teams would be less able to rest players.
The ERC will meet in Dublin on Tuesday to determine their next move.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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