New Accord needs compromise from all sides
ON RUGBY:There will have to be give-and-take over a new agreement, but keeping 24 teams allows more elbow room than reducing it to 20 teams, writes GERRY THORNLEY
PRIOR TO next Monday’s meeting in Rome of all the stakeholders involved in the negotiations for a new ERC Accord there remains an uneasy calm. Unnervingly, even Premiership Rugby’s chief executive Mark McCafferty has been as quiet as a church mouse for the two weeks since the first meeting. It’s akin to the calm after the initial storm and, you fear, before the next one.
McCafferty, it will be recalled, moaned loudly and publicly at the way the ERC had been dragging their heels on foot of the English and French clubs serving notice they would leave the competition unless a new Accord concerning the Heineken Cup’s format and financial make-up was agreed.
He then fired a shot across the bows of the ERC by announcing Premiership Rugby’s deal with BT Vision which, brazenly, also included the rights to English games in the Heineken Cup or an alternative European competition, in defiance of the ERC’s new deal with Sky Sports which Premiership Rugby’s representative on the ERC board, Peter Wheeler, had been a party to.
Ironically, given his continual bleatings over the unfulfilled commercial potential of the Heineken and Amlin Cups, it’s not widely known that McCafferty served as chairman of the ERC’s financial and marketing committee when, alas, he was unable to come up with such a rewarding television deal for the European competitions.
For sure, there’s no doubt the Celtic countries will have to accept a compromise, but they don’t need to be bullied into a corner to appreciate this. Yes it’s true the example of Edinburgh progressing into the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup while finishing second last in the Pro 12 (and still qualifying for this season’s Heineken Cup) does not seem entirely fair or reflect well on the competitiveness of the Pro 12. However, the Celts are entitled to take French and English observations that their new demands are also for the good of the Pro 12 with a large dose of salt.
At any rate, the Celts might well retort that the French would be well advised to reduce their top flight from 14 to 12 clubs and/or do away with le barrage, effectively two additional quarter-finals to their own knock-out stages to incorporate the teams which finish fifth and sixth which they have added to an over-crowded itinerary in the last two seasons.
It is primarily because of their expansionist approach to their own league that the French want the ERC to reduce the Heineken Cup from 24 to 20 clubs, and in particular bring forward the H Cup’s knock-out stages so as to give the French championship’s knock-out stages a clearer run in May. How parochial.
Yet, it’s worth noting the French have participated in the Heineken Cup in every year of the competition’s history. By contrast, the English clubs (along with the Scots) didn’t partake in the inaugural 1995-96 competition, and boycotted the 1998-99 Cup.
The worst aspect of the Anglo-French proposals is they could seriously imperil the future competitiveness of the Scots and the Italians at international level as well as club/provincial level. But then again the English RFU were the least supportive of Italy joining an expanded Six Nations in 2000.