Iain Morrison: The battle for rugby’s soul

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

AS A young girl, one of the Mitford sisters once threatened to throw herself out of the upper floor window.

Upon hearing the news, her mother, recognising attention-seeking histrionics for what they were, is reported to have sighed: “I do hope she doesn’t do anything quite so foolish,” before returning to her book .

BT Vision chief executive Marc Watson

BT Vision chief executive Marc Watson

If it was attention that Mark McCafferty was after, then the Premier Rugby Ltd (PRL) boss’s announcement last week of a £152 million deal with BT Vision has certainly made the rugby world sit up and take notice. Not to be outdone, ERC – the European body which runs the Heineken Cup – announced its own TV deal with Sky from 2014-18, said to be worth around £70m. Both sides insisted that they alone had the right to shake hands with a broadcaster and both can’t be right.

Reports of the demise of the Heineken Cup are probably a little exaggerated. The PRL deal with BT raises more questions than answers, starting with the inflated figure of £152m as anyone who has been suckered into a “Sale of the Century” will know. The big signs promise “75 per cent OFF” before the excited shoppers can reach for their glasses to read the all-important small print at the bottom, “up to”. The PRL deal with BT is for up to £152m which could, but almost certainly won’t, mean £152m changes hands, especially when an undisclosed slice of this pie is earmarked for a European competition that may never take place. The fact that PRL won’t disclose the domestic/European ratio is suspicious in itself and this may yet be the undoing of McCafferty, who is already under intense scrutiny after Twickenham decreed on Friday that European TV rights were not his to sell. The PRL boss received the public support of his chairman Quentin Smith last week, which has to be a worrying sign, so if things turn out badly presumably McCafferty simply fades away until only the grimace remains.

Rugby has become a pawn in a brutal fight between two media giants, Sky and BT Vision. With twice the profits (£2.4 billion versus £1bn) of their rival and three times the turnover (£19.3bn versus £6.5bn) BT is throwing its considerable weight about but, in doing so, it risks breaking the best club competition in world rugby.

BT Vision has been hoovering up sporting rights in an attempt to eat into Sky’s ten million customers. It recently paid £738m for a tranche of English Premier League football which will see it broadcast 38 games per season from 2013-14 for three years. But if it wants to attract rugby fans on the back of its latest coup then “subscribe to the channel that wrecked the Heineken Cup” is probably not the strapline it is looking for.

Marc Watson heads up BT Vision. He was part of the Reel Enterprises team that made the brief match between the SPL and Setanta before the UK arm of the Irish broadcaster came spectacularly unstuck. Watson is riding high but his comments on this latest deal have been decidedly left field. Like some cheesy TV salesman peddling the latest soap powder, he gushed about a “dazzling new European tournament”, entirely unaware that the vast majority of his target audience feel pretty protective of the current brand.

The question everyone is asking is who, exactly, are England’s top clubs going to play against in this “dazzling” new European tournament and the only answer lies across the Channel. French clubs want the Heineken Cup over by the end of April, so everyone can focus on the domestic Top 14 
play-offs in May, and you have to suspect that the ERC will make it happen tout de suite in an effort to get them onside. Except that that is exactly where the French appear to be right now, especially if you listened last week to the vice -chair of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), Patrick Wolff.

“Of course I understand that this is the usual pressure exerted before negotiations but I was sorry to see financial issues being discussed before we talk about how the competition needs to be improved,” he said in the wake of McCafferty’s announcement. “We don’t want to start all this by having lawyers there arguing about TV rights. We must talk first about the sport.

“There is no question of boycott as there was six years ago but there has to be changes on the sporting, administration and commercial issues around the Heineken Cup,” Wolff continued. “I have presented a platform, on behalf of the French clubs, to ERC for negotiation. And we will be talking about that at the meeting next week [in Dublin on Tuesday].

“The position of our clubs is that we want to play against Leinster and Munster in Ireland and against Leicester in England. And we want the competition to involve everyone around the northern hemisphere for two reasons – the value of the competition and because we are fully aware of the importance of this competition for the Celts. We cannot imagine that French clubs could be responsible for seeing Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Wales sharply regressing.”

The chief beef of the English Premier clubs is that they feel the RaboDirect Pro12 is over represented in the Heineken Cup. There are six Aviva Premiership teams in this season’s competition alongside seven from France and 11 from the Rabo (four from Ireland, three from Wales and two each from Scotland and Italy).

The issue was brought to a head by last season’s Heineken quarter-final line-up which featured just a single English side, Saracens. The argument from England is that, while the Pro12 clubs are all but guaranteed places in the following season’s Heineken Cup regardless of their league position and can therefore manage their squads accordingly, the English and French have to fight harder on two fronts, as their European qualification is contingent on finishing positions in their domestic league.

Should the French join PRL in demanding a reduction in numbers of Heineken entries from the RaboDirect then the mood music would quicken. The ERC will be squeezed into making serious concessions on numbers with, perhaps, one Italian and one Scottish team alongside two Irish and two Welsh clubs in the Heineken. But Wolff is saying the exact opposite.

Without the support of the French clubs, the new European Cup replacement planned by PRL and BT Vision would look awfully like, er, an English Cup, which is pretty much what Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas suggested last week.

“Premier Rugby haven’t got the Welsh, the Irish, the Scottish or the Italians and they haven’t got the French at the moment,” he said. “They have only got the English teams in it. They are making massive assumptions.”

Even if the LNR aligns with the PRL, French law states that the former cannot sell TV rights without Federation Francaise de Rugby (FFR) approval and that is not likely to be forthcoming for a breakaway Anglo/French competition. The Celtic trio and Italy together might make modest concessions but they will be loath to give up on their central mantra, namely that any European competition has to benefit all, including the weaker members of the pack.

McCafferty, pictured left, argues in favour of a third tier of European competition to benefit the weakest members of the pack such as Russia and Ukraine but Romania (Bucharest Wolves) and Spain (Bizkaia Gernika) already compete in the Amlin Challenge Cup, which could be expanded to include others.

Forget charity, the PRL is primarily interested in maximising the moolah and that £152m is the sort of headline-grabbing figure to make the English club owners believe they are finally getting a dividend on an investment in professional rugby that has totalled around £500m in the professional era.

Exactly how much of that £152m remains after stripping out the doubtful European element is the big question and, for McCafferty’s sake, it had better be chunky.

The PRL wants to maximise profits for the clubs it represents. The ERC wants to grow the game in Europe. Given their conflicting agendas this scrap was always on the cards.

If the PRL wins this battle, the future of European rugby will be increasingly dominated by clubs, with the future of the blue riband Test events like the Six Nations uncertain. We will go down the football road where, sooner or later, club matches rather than internationals dominate the sport. Pick a good Heineken weekend and we are not a kick in the pants away from that situation already.

If the unions hold their nerve and their line – progress which benefits all – the game should continue to grow in the future much as it has done in the last decade. More slowly, perhaps, than England’s clubs want but leaving none behind.

It is a fight for nothing less than the soul of the game, the first shots have been fired and, whichever side wins this skirmish, it’s going to be a long time before we can all get back to a good book.


Scenario 1: No change

Nothing significant changes, Premier Rugby Ltd backs down and the status quo continues with English clubs back in the fold.

Likelihood: Five per cent probability. Too much has been staked to prevent change of some sort – if only of the face-saving sort.

Scenario 2: Changes to the calendar

The French clubs are appeased by bringing the Heineken final forward to April, isolating the English clubs who are then forced to back down. A committee is set up to review Heineken qualification in the future, chaired by an independent judge.

Likelihood: 55 per cent. This remains the most likely outcome simply because, in addition to the BT Vision money, the PRL needs someone to play its “European” games against.

Scenario 3: Significant changes to calendar and qualification

French and English clubs force a change to the Heineken calendar and a reduction in the number of RaboDirect clubs in the tournament to six, with one each from Scotland and Italy and two each from Ireland and Wales in a 20-club competition.

Likelihood: 25 per cent. Only if the French buy the English line.

Scenario 4: Brand new competition

The BT Vision money persuades a slim majority within ERC – Wales crack first – to go with the new broadcaster. Wales, France and England set up on their own. Ireland, Scotland and Italy play one season in the Irn-Bru Shield before joining the others.

Likelihood: 15 per cent. PRL failing to get the French onside before showing its hand was a mistake which could scupper it.