THE SCOTTISH Rugby Union and its union counterparts could gift themselves exciting new European tournaments in time for Christmas, according to English clubs, if they are prepared now to step away from the European Rugby Cup structure.
‘Should we stay or should we go?’ is the question being tossed around by the English, Scottish, Irish, French and Italian rugby chiefs after Welsh regions stated their intent to join the new ‘Rugby Champions Cup’
following two days of talks with mediators in Dublin.
The union reps emerged last Thursday bullish after agreeing to concessions that we now know were requested by the Premiership Rugby Ltd (PRL) and French body, the Ligue de National Rugby (LNR), in a secret meeting on Tuesday. Yes, they will make the RaboDirect PRO12 a qualifying tournament for the European cup and yes, we will move to a new three-way split of revenues between the PRO12, Premiership and Top 14, as opposed to the PRO12 receiving 52 percent and 24 percent each to the English and French under the current deal.
That was what the English and French clubs had been requesting behind closed doors for much of the past four years, according to PRL Chairman Quentin Smith. Outlining the PRL and LNR stance in detail to The Scotsman, Smith welcomed last week’s agreement, but stated that they must go further and leave the existing European Rugby Cup organisation, and its management team led by chief executive Derek McGrath, and agree to a new pan-European body to run European tournaments.
“What came out of Dublin last week was not a new proposal,” he said, “but an endorsement of our proposal, and some seem to have missed that.
“We were very dissatisfied with the way ERC ran the competitions on a number of fronts, sufficiently dissatisfied that we and the French clubs served the required two years’ notice from the end of the Accord. But instead of looking seriously at our issues, the ERC filibustered and procrastinated through the past 18 months. Now, finally, they agree, which of course we welcome.
“But, I want to be clear for Scotsman readers here. This is not all about English clubs. I am passionate about rugby, having chaired Sale for ten years and worked in community and youth rugby, and I have a strong sensitivity to Scottish rugby. I know the Edinburgh and Glasgow managing directors well, and have met and have a lot of respect for Sir Moir Lockhead [SRU Chairman] and Mark Dodson [SU CEO]. At the end of the day I’m a completely independent chairman, with no financial interests in the PRL or any club.
“I am the first independent chairman of the PRL and my job is to ensure that the decisions taken are done so with probity and integrity, and in the interests of rugby full stop. You are not talking here to a club owner or chief executive.
“So, I want the best for European rugby, which is why
we are advocating a new structure that allows the three leagues contributing teams a fair and equal say, and a fair and equal share of the revenues, even though the large amounts of money will be coming from the broadcasting deals done in England and France.”
But, crucially, not within the existing ERC set-up. The unions, including the RFU and FFR, set up ERC as a business based in Dublin to manage European rugby at the onset of professionalism in 1995-96. They remain its directors and have generated increased figures in supporters, media and financial revenues.
But the English and French clubs insist that they have lost faith in ERC’s structure to effectively run the events and maximise its appeal and income generation, and have moved on.
Had the qualification and revenue split issues been agreed before the summer of 2012 we would possibly be looking forward to a new Heineken Cup on Sky from next year. But the ERC and unions refused to countenance the changes. Until last week. However, by then BT Sport had seized an opportunity to offer a contract worth more than Sky’s, £152M, which the disaffected PRL signed.
They are now in a strong position. They believe they have 30 of the existing 38 European clubs signed up to the new ‘Rugby Champions Cup’ competitions to be launched next summer - the 12 English, 14 French and four Welsh sides - and are understood to be in discussions with a number of global brands about sponsorship rumoured to be worth in excess of £10m.
Smith strenuously denied internet speculation that the BT contract requires four nations to sign up, or will be deemed invalid, but stated that they do want the Scots, Irish and Italians on board, and so is urging their unions to think again.
“What alternative is there?” asked the lawyer and mediator by day. “We will launch next year with the English, French and Welsh clubs,” he said, “but we would prefer this to be a pan-European tournament with the Scots, Irish and Italians involved. That is good for the competition, good for rugby and, I believe, vital to us developing those countries and European rugby.
“We believe we have put together a fairer, more viable way forward that will take European rugby to a new level, for all of our clubs.”
PRL and the LNR are finalising details for the ‘Rugby Champions Cup’ proposal, and plan to present them to the unions after the autumn Test window, but two key issues remain. Will the unions decide that that represents the best way forward, and form a new three-way governance structure with the PRL and LNR, which would leave them open to being out-voted if the English and French club bodies stick together on contentious issues? And how will they deal with two rival broadcast agreements for one competition?
Smith would not be drawn on either, but insisted: “I am optimistic.
“The unions now seem to understand our position and I think acknowledge that what we have presented is not hostile, anti-competitive or unfavourable to any of the unions or their teams who wish to participate. So, hopefully, we may now see co-operation over a new governance structure away from ERC that can take us forward.”
Intriguing, epochal even for northern hemisphere rugby, but with lawyers, broadcasters and significant sums of money involved we remain sceptical that this path might suddenly smooth out.