Celtic rugby unions holding firm over Heineken Cup

Gordon D'Arcy of Leinster lifts the Heineken Cup trophy in 2012. Picture: Getty
Gordon D'Arcy of Leinster lifts the Heineken Cup trophy in 2012. Picture: Getty
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THE Celtic rugby unions and Italy have come out in force against the English and French clubs in the latest salvo in the battle for control of the Heineken Cup, declaring that none of their teams will be permitted to join the rebels in a new European tournament.

English Premiership clubs are continuing to push for a new “Rugby Champions Cup”, which would cut the Celtic nations’ representation to six teams and increase the share of money for English and French clubs to nearly ten times that of the Celtic sides. The Scottish Rugby Union fears being cut out altogether and losing £2.5 million to £5m in annual revenue.

But the English clubs now appear increasingly isolated after Scotland, Wales and Ireland followed up comments from ex-France winger Jean-Pierre Lux, chairman of Heineken Cup organisers ERC, and the French Federation of Rugby (FFR), who stated that French sides will not be permitted to play in a tournament organised outside the auspices of the International Rugby Board (IRB).

The three Celtic unions disputed English claims to have had interest in joining the proposed new tournament from sides in the RaboDirect Pro12 and made it clear that there was no way any of their teams would leave the Heineken Cup.

The SRU stated: “Scottish Rugby wishes to clarify that its clubs will not be participating in future tournaments which do not have the full approval of the International Rugby Board (IRB) or the relevant national rugby unions.

“Scottish Rugby and its clubs remain fully committed to the development of a pan-European Rugby Competition and we welcome the recent comments made by the IRB Chairman, who confirmed that a pan-European tournament remains the goal of the IRB. We are confident this can be achieved. Scottish Rugby remains committed to working with our colleagues across

Europe and encourages all parties to fully engage in meaningful negotiations. We hope that negotiations can be concluded quickly.”

The other unions issued almost identical statements. The next step is a meeting on 23 October at which Canadian lawyer and experienced mediator Graeme Mew is to attempt to bring the parties together to find common ground.

Whether that is possible may hinge on the strength of the English club’s television deal with BT Sport and whether leading Premiership figures can accept that they were wrong to have negotiated it outside the ERC framework.

The Premiership signed a deal to sell all their European matches to BT Sport from when the current Sky deal ends next summer. It is reputedly for a figure higher than that paid by Sky, which the English clubs appear to have believed would persuade the other teams to join them and leave the Heineken Cup.

But ERC – a body made up of representatives of all the competing unions – is the sole organisation able to negotiate broadcast rights for the competition and they had already completed a new four-year deal with Sky.

However, Mark McCafferty, Chief Executive of Premiership Rugby, is ploughing on with his separate deal and insists that he has withdrawn from the talks on the future of the Heineken Cup and is busy forming a new competition model with leading French clubs that will prove enticing to the other nations.

The six English clubs involved in this season’s tournament – Leicester, Saracens, Gloucester, Harlequins, Northampton and Exeter –- will be represented at the English and Welsh media launch in Cardiff next Monday, he said, but discussions over the Heineken Cup’s future are over.

“We are certainly not attending the meetings on October 23 and 24 that we have been invited to, and the French clubs aren’t either,” he said.

“As far as we are concerned we are not in ERC [European Rugby Cup] competitions, and neither are the French clubs. We’ve served notice, we are discharging all of our obligations during that notice period, and, at the end of that notice period, we will go to play in new competitions.”

But, as it currently stands, any English and French club competition would not be sanctioned by the IRB and taking part could lead to players being banned from international competition.

The Celtic, Italian, French and English unions are keen to avoid that and are seeking a compromise with a new Heineken Cup structure that would mean no guaranteed spots for the four Scottish and Italian teams. However, the RFU are in a precarious position, trying on one hand to keep their powerful clubs happy while siding with the other unions. They could have most to lose with a World Cup in England just two years away.