New Accord needs compromise from all sides

Tue, Oct 2, 2012, 01:00

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.

But the suspicion lurks that this is primarily about money, especially as the English clubs, collectively, are reckoned to have lost £15 million (€18.7m) in the 2010-11 season, with only four clubs breaking even or making a profit. Prior to the first stakeholders’ meeting a fortnight ago, coincidentally at least three English newspapers in one 24-hour period claimed the Irish provinces received far more, or even twice as much, as the English and French clubs. Alas, the actual figures don’t remotely back this up.

Yes, it is true the Irish provinces earned the IRFU a handsome return of €3.15 million (about half the pool of meritocracy payments) by dint of their performances in last season’s cup. But that was their best season ever and the French had the same return when providing two finalists in 2009-10, and ditto the English in 2006-07. Then, of course, we were told the greater competitiveness of the Top 14 and Premiership (complete with relegation) was what made them so much stronger. Nothing has changed since, but never mind.

The fact is about 80 per cent of the ERC booty is paid out in basic appearance payments to each of the six participating countries. This yielded roughly €40 million last season, of which half (ie almost 25 per cent each, or about €10 million) was paid out to the French and English clubs. That they decide to pay it out to all their top flight clubs, rather than the six or seven qualifiers, is their business.

This leaves in the region of 13 per cent, or approximately €5.3 million each to the three Celts, with around €4 million for the Italians. So, arguably, the biggest beneficiaries are the Scottish, given they have only two professional entities to feed.

If a new Accord were to agree to the French and English proposals, this would mean last year’s €40 million basic payments would have given 33 per cent (€13.3 million) or thereabouts to each of the English and French clubs, with the same again to be divvied up between the three Celtic nations and the Italians. This would equate to merely €3.5 million for each of the Celtic nations, and about €3 million for the Italians. So then, more money for the French and the English to enable them to buy more of the leading Celtic and Italian players, whose unions will have less money to keep them? That seems fair, alright!

There will have to be compromise, but keeping 24 teams allows more elbow room than reducing it to 20. Perhaps then, the English and French contingent could be increased to a minimum of seven each, with the Pro 12 reduced to 12, and perhaps ring-fencing one each from Scotland and Italy.

Ultimately, one imagines a new Accord will require several meetings, and will require a degree of compromise from the French and especially English clubs, which has hitherto not been very evident. “There will be a Heineken Cup,” forecast one stakeholder to emerge from the first meeting. After a sporting week when it felt especially nice to be a European, it would be nice to think it will be, and with the English clubs included.

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