McCafferty comments force ERC to respond

Thu, Aug 23, 2012, 01:00

The voluble chief executive of Premiership Rugby has issued more threats to pull out of the Heineken Cup, writes GERRY THORNLEY

THE LATEST Anglo-French stand-off with their European counterparts over the future composition of the Heineken Cup has intensified. True to form, Mark McCafferty – the voluble chief executive of Premiership Rugby – has provocatively upped the ante by accusing the ERC of dragging its heels on the issue, much to the dismay and frustration of the tournament’s organisers.

The current accord, agreed in 2007, has two more seasons to run and as with previous agreements, the likelihood is that the brinkmanship will continue for much of the next two years, amid further threats of an Anglo-French breakaway competition.

There’s little doubt though that McCafferty’s complaints reflect a growing angst and envy within English and French club rugby, however misguided, concerning the Irish provinces’ ability to claim five of the last seven Heineken Cups.

Under the terms of the 2007 ERC shareholders’ agreement, which agreed to the current qualification and competition format over a seven-year period until the end of the 2013-14 season, any of the key shareholders who wanted that accord to be renegotiated had to serve notice of their intention to break away from the ’07 agreement by June 1st of this year.

Three of the stakeholders – the Fédération Francaise de Rugby (FFR), the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) and Premiership Rugby – duly did so. On foot of this, an ERC board meeting on June 6th initiated the ensuing two-year term of renegotiations by agreeing that the ERC chief executive Derek McGrath and ERC chairman Jean-Pierre Lux conduct a series of meetings over the summer with the various stakeholders to lay the ground for a workshop meeting on September 18th.

This they have done, so for McCafferty to declare again that “the clubs in England and France have served two years’ notice that we intend to pull out of Europe because there needs to be a level playing field” is nothing new.

“So far, the response from the other countries has been slow, even though we are not sabre-rattling. We have not been locked in talks and there is no meeting about the issue until the end of next month,” added McCafferty, who said he could not understand why the ERC was “dragging its heels”.

The ERC are rarely inclined to become embroiled in an unedifying public spat with McCafferty but these observations drew an ERC spokesperson to comment: “We feel a little bit dismayed at this accusation because there is a process and a timeline and a preparatory sequence agreed at a board meeting on June 6th and the meetings with Derek McGrath and Jean-Pierre Lux are still ongoing. So to say that nothing has been happening and people have been dragging their feet is frustrating to say the least.”

The June 6th board meeting was attended by Peter Wheeler of Premiership Rugby as well as all the other board members.

McCafferty also reiterated the view of Premiership Rugby (and their French counterparts) that the Heineken Cup qualification process should be reduced to 20 clubs and be “entirely merit based”, in that “the top teams in all three leagues as well as the winners of the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup should make up 20 sides taking part”.

Applied retrospectively, this would have halved the Welsh and Scottish representation to two and one respectively this season, while debarring the Italians altogether, which rather defeats the competition’s primary purpose of being a European Cup.

“The system plays a role in the way Leinster and Munster have dominated the competition in recent years,” claimed McCafferty, which rather conveniently overlooks the fact that Leinster, and indeed Munster, have been consistently at the business end of both competitions, with Leinster reaching the finals of the last three Pro12s as well as winning the last two Heineken Cups and Munster also reaching the League play-offs in each of the last three seasons.

Indeed, were a top six qualification crudely applied retrospectively, Leinster and Munster would still have qualified in each of the last nine seasons of a full Celtic/Rabo league structure.

Nor did the tougher qualification systems in England and France prevent the English clubs winning five Heineken Cups in an eight-year period (1997 to 2004) or Toulouse from winning four Cups to augment Brive’s success in 1997, nor indeed the all-French finals of ’03, ’05 and ’10 and all-English final of ’07. Indeed, in those days we were told that the competitiveness of their leagues was supposedly a virtue.

And why, then, has the easier Celtic qualifying route not facilitated the Welsh winning it once or the Scots from reaching more than one semi-finals? Of course, it was Edinburgh reaching a first Heineken Cup semi-final last year while finishing 11th of 12 in last season’s Rabo Pro12 which gave the Anglo-French axis its most compelling argument.

“I understand the Pro12 model is different, but we cannot damage our core competition for 20 per cent ,” says McCafferty. Yet few of the Premiership clubs make a profit, and this latest rift will distract from the undignified squabble which saw London Welsh eventually win promotion to the Premiership on appeal via the High Court.

Meanwhile, the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup grow annually in terms of spectators, viewing audiences and profits (the Heineken Cup generated over €50m in revenue in 2010-11).

“ERC should know that we are serious and while the issue has to be resolved, everyone has to realise we cannot carry on as we are,” said McCafferty, before threatening: “If it is not, we would go to an Anglo-French competition and if others wanted to join us, fair enough.”

This one is set to run. And run.

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