Comment: Unions’ cave-in to clubs is storing up trouble

French rugby chief Pierre Camou has shown welcome leadership. Picture: Getty
French rugby chief Pierre Camou has shown welcome leadership. Picture: Getty
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WITH Grangemouth hogging all the headlines in Scotland it became clear that Unite wasn’t the only union to cave in last week.

After endless dialogue behind the scenes between the various parties, the French and English clubs have emerged from smoke-filled rooms with almost everything on their wish list and they are justifiably confident about winning the remaining arguments in the fight for the future of European club rugby.

Just about the only concession the French and English have made so far is that every nation will have at least one club in the top-tier competition if and when a new tournament replaces the Heineken Cup. The unions have given ground or given up just about everything else from qualification and finances right down to their recipe for Ratatouille. There are still two hurdles to overcome, the first of which is governance – who runs the show – and while this had been a union line in the sand it now appears to be for sale like everything else.

The new organisation comes under the auspices of the Six Nations (ie the unions) but that arrangement, to comply with IRB’s directives, looks like a fig leaf to cover their embarrassment. It would be a hands-off, arms’ length relationship in which the tail will tell the dog to sit up and beg before feeding it scraps. The unions will still provide match officials, doping control etc etc, all the thankless tasks that go into making a tournament a success, while the French/English clubs walk away with the majority of the spoils.

Premier Rugby Ltd, the umbrella body which represents the English clubs and has been the driving force behind plans to replace the Heineken Cup, wants the composition of the new board to mirror the new financial division, with equal votes per league and without RFU/FFR busybodies. That would ensure the English and French clubs will always outvote the Celtic unions. The RFU and FFR may see things differently. We have to hope so. The French Federation are the only ones, heaven help us, who have consistently shown strength and leadership throughout this crisis and, last week, their president Pierre Camou was still manning the barricades insisting, according to one source, that he would prevent French clubs from playing in the proposed Rugby Champions Cup.

If the French and English clubs do get their way it won’t be a disaster in the short term. Presuming the new competition grows some legs, a long-term agreement will be put into place which will determine the structure of the event for the foreseeable future, say five to seven years. With the structure nailed down, who runs the show on a daily basis becomes a little less important. The unions will do what they do best and organise the peripherals, while the commercial side will be driven by the best brains from the French/English clubs. So far so good.

The problems arise when the French/English clubs want to make changes down the line… perhaps bump the Italians or Scots for commercial reasons to be replaced by South African sides looking to exploit the biggest market in international rugby. There will be money arguments because whoever runs the show cuts the cake and, even now, we still haven’t seen the small print of the done-and-dusted BT broadcasting deal for the proposed new tournament.

Worst of all will be when the French and English clubs declare that they need to shift the Six Nations forward, backwards or, to hell with it, both ways in the calendar, squashing it into five consecutive weekends. There will be arguments aplenty and, emboldened by their current success, the English and French clubs will believe that they hold all the cards. If last week is anything to go by they may be right.

The other stumbling block is the broadcasting rights. PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty recently stated: “It will be covered by BT Sport.” Although there may be wriggle room to allow Sky access to matches not featuring English clubs.

PRL will argue that as the French and English clubs are guaranteeing the Celtic and Italian unions no loss of earnings, they need BT’s bumper deal. Money is at the root of this particular evil because the Celts cannot afford to take a financial hit.

After concessions on just about every issue, the unions may be hoping the PRL and the French clubs reciprocate in the coming weeks but hope is all they have.

The full ramifications of allowing French and English clubs to run the European Cup will only become apparent over time but few of them are likely to be positive for the long-term health of the game. Once the Genie is out of the bottle it won’t be content to sit on the sidelines.