Tom English: Time to accept Heineken Cup change

FINALLY, the future of club rugby in Europe is coming to a head. After all the phoney wars and the fighting talk of recent years we appear to have arrived at the endgame.

Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk of Toulon raise the Heineken Cup after the 2013 final. Picture: Getty
Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk of Toulon raise the Heineken Cup after the 2013 final. Picture: Getty

The Heineken Cup – the greatest thing to have happened in northern hemisphere rugby since the game went professional in 1995 – now hangs by a thread with the potential fallout for Glasgow and Edinburgh, and even Scotland’s international side, being pretty profound.

If the English and the French make good on their vow to abandon the Heineken Cup and create their own tournament in time for next season then we’re into an Armageddon scenario for those who may be left behind. The Welsh, you fancy, will jump ship because where the English clubs go, the Welsh tend to follow, so you can forget about your Cardiffs and your Ospreys and your Llanellis in your bread-and-butter club competition – currently the Rabo – just as surely as you can forget your Leicesters and Northamptons, your Clermonts and Toulons in Europe. All of that would almost certainly go.

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What might be left? The Scots and the Irish and the Italians scrapping it out in a repetitive and unlovable tournament. Rabobank are leaving the sponsorship stage at the end of this season but, even if you found a company mad enough to put money into such a league – good luck with that – you’d still have to question the point of it.

The Scottish and Irish clubs – centrally contracted – exist in order to feed the national team. The importance of the high-octane Heineken Cup and the improving Rabo is the be-all and end-all of that.

If both went, then the repercussions for the national set-up would be vast. You’d have players competing in a reduced and substandard league and then expected to hop straight into the Six Nations and compete with players who have spent their weeks and months operating at an altogether higher level. That’s not a good roadmap. Already in Ireland they are living in fear that such a scenario would lead to their best players disappearing to England and France in pursuit of proper competition and a shot at a new version of the European Cup. Scotland loses players in a steady flow to these countries already. The flow could become a torrent if they are denied European rugby.

What is this battle about? Cash and control, of course. The English and French want a reduction in the number of teams in the Heineken Cup, from 24 to 20. They want a greater share of revenues. They want entry to the tournament to be based on merit and not on the automatic selection by which the likes of Scotland are guaranteed two places in the Heineken Cup no matter how their teams have performed in the Pro12.

They have been talking about these changes for a long time and they’ve advanced not one inch. Now they say they’re leaving. Emboldened by their four-year deal with BT Vision, worth £152million, the English clubs, along with their French counterparts, said they’ve had enough of beating their heads against a brick wall and that from next season they are going to set up their own tournament. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh and Italians are all invited, but if they join then they will be playing by the rules set down by the English and the French.

This is a power-grab and a money-grab, but you can understand where the malcontents are coming from. As it stands the PRO12 gets 52 per cent of the Heineken Cup money, compared with 24 per cent each to the English and French clubs, the two nations that generate the significant portion of the cash. There has long since been rancour about the PRO12’s over-representation in the Heineken. Why is Scotland guaranteed two spots when its history and earning power is so poor? Why is Italy treated the same way? Why does Wales get three spots? Why are all these teams involved when others from England and France with bigger crowds and better sides are locked out?

Power and money. We have to remember that rugby is in its infancy as a professional sport. In many ways it is still finding its feet, so it’s little wonder that it is going through these problems. All professional sports experience these issues at one time, especially when a large bucket of cash is involved.

BT Vision’s millions into the coffers of the English clubs changed the narrative, no question. Suddenly, the wealthy English clubs felt that they had nothing to lose by issuing ultimatums.

The timing is in their favour also. The SRU and the IRFU will be hoping like hell that the RFU will jump all over the English clubs, as represented by Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL), and whip them into line. What can the RFU do to quell the rebellion? They could say that, if the clubs break away, then their players might not be picked to play for their country and that the clubs will suffer financially as a result. Will they do it? Hardly.

England has a Rugby World Cup coming up in two years’ time. This is the great focus of the RFU and nothing is going to get in the way of their attempts to win back the Webb Ellis Trophy on home turf. Picking a new fight with the clubs now – after fighting bitterly with them for so many years – is not in the RFU’s interests. The last thing they want to do is fall out with their clubs.

How about the French Rugby Federation (FFR) as potential saviours of the Heineken Cup? ERC believe that the French clubs can do nothing unless they have a mandate from the FFR. The clubs think differently. If the SRU and the IRFU are hoping for salvation on that front, then they may be disappointed.

The SRU have to avoid the doomsday scenario, which is a pointless club competition involving Scotland, Ireland and Italy, while the relevant games are being played by the English, the French and most probably the Welsh. To allow that to happen would be a dereliction of duty. The goalposts are moving here and the SRU need to accept it, no matter how hard it may be to accept.

Whether it’s a reconstituted Heineken Cup governed by ERC or a new European Cup controlled, in essence, by the English and the French, then the Scots have to be there.

The English and the French want a European tournament involving 20 teams, all there on merit. They want six from England, six from France, six from the PRO12 with the reigning champions and the Amlin champions making up the 20. This would eliminate Scotland’s protected status. That said, in each of the last two seasons, Glasgow would have qualified out of the Pro12 with plenty to spare. Edinburgh would have missed out and, to be frank, they would have had no legitimate complaints because they performed dismally.

There is nothing wrong with teams qualifying on merit. It might galvanise some, like Edinburgh. God knows, they need some galvanising.

Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow are a perfect example of how things should be done. Without question, a meritocracy would lend greater significance to the Pro12, if only the top six made it into Europe. You could argue that it should have been that way a long time ago, long before the English and the French threatened the nuclear option.

The SRU had better make sure that the bomb does not go off – or, if there has to be an explosion, they had better be sheltering with five other nations and not just two when it happens.