Heineken Cup row ‘threatens pro rugby in Scotland’

SRU chief Mark Dodson is confident of a resolution. Picture: SNS/SRU
SRU chief Mark Dodson is confident of a resolution. Picture: SNS/SRU
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Former international captain Andy Nicol fears professional rugby will end in Scotland if the country is not involved in European competition next season.

English and French clubs have signalled their intention to break away from the current Heineken Cup set-up and create their own tournament because of what they feel is an unfair bias towards teams from the other nations involved – Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

The English and French clubs are expected to snub talks planned for later this month by European Rugby Cup, the organisation which runs the Heineken Cup, whilst teams from the other countries have rejected calls to join the rival “Rugby Champions Cup” proposal.

Scottish Rugby Union chief executive Mark Dodson insists he is confident of a resolution but Nicol has expressed fears for the future of the professional game north of the border if a compromise isn’t found. The SRU receives £5 million from the involvement of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the Heineken Cup and, with debts recently detailed as £11.2m, Nicol believes the governing body would struggle to fund the professional teams without that revenue.

He said: “There’s been a bit of posturing from both sides. The unions had to come out with some statement after the English and the French clubs had done that as well. But I just hope it is a bit of brinkmanship and posturing, and they get round the table and they sort something out, and we get a competition – it might not be the Heineken Cup, as called now, but it will certainly look like it.

“It could well be the end of professional rugby in Scotland if this competition wasn’t to go ahead. I don’t think you can fill the hole of that amount of money with anything else.

“We know they’re having to service a lot of debt at Murrayfield, so how would they replace that £5m and how would they fund the professional teams for them to be competitive?

“I think it’s that serious and I really hope we can get round the table and discuss this sensibly, and have a competition like we’ve currently got, which is a really strong competition.”

Nicol became the first Briton to lift the Heineken Cup when, after victories for Toulouse and Brive following its inception in season 1995-96, he skippered Bath to a dramatic 19-18 triumph over Brive in 1998.

With Munster and Leinster winning five of the last eight tournaments, the English and French clubs have expressed anger at the qualification criteria, which state that both Edinburgh and Glasgow get in automatically every year, along with three teams from Ireland, three from Wales and two from Italy.

Reports have suggested the SRU could be prepared to give up one guaranteed spot, in the hope that both their teams could still qualify through a top-six finish in the RaboDirect Pro12. And Nicol admits qualification must be sorted out to allow a new pan-European competition to go ahead.

Speaking to BBC Scotland, the 42-year-old former scrum-half said: “It happens every few years. The English and the French flex their muscles when the contract is coming to an end. This time is very different because they’ve got a television deal on the table and I think there’s a real clear and present danger.

“I think it’s accepted that the current format for the Heineken Cup will cease and there will be a new competition. We just need to make sure and hope that Scotland are heavily involved in that.

“I think that [no European competition next season] would be a total disaster, because the Heineken Cup has been a fantastic competition. Where it’s flawed, and I think everyone is in agreement with this as well, is the qualification – that the two Scottish sides, the two Italian sides and the four Irish sides should qualify automatically.

“So, let’s get qualification based on a meritocracy and then the distribution of revenues is for the boardroom. That’s not what players or supporters are really concerned about. But it’s one of the main issues as well, so let’s get it sorted out and let’s get round the table.”