Anglo-French club alliance means war over future of European rugby
Increasingly easy to envisage a huge schism in the game
While French clubs like Toulon and Clermont are likely to be on board a Heineken Cup next year could well be without the English clubs. Photograph: Inpho.
As a further shot across the bows of the game’s long-established hierarchy, the announcement by the Anglo-French clubs’ axis of the so-called Rugby Champions Cup last Sunday, would seem to mean war. And Mark McCafferty and Paul Goze (the chief executives of PRL and the LNR) and their millionaire club-owing buddies don’t seem to care who will be caught in the crossfire. There’s no telling where it might end.
Rugby, as we have come to know it, has been taken to the brink before but this is clearly the greatest litmus test which the game’s governing body, the International Rugby Board, and its member unions have ever faced. If the English and French club owners break away, and worse still are allowed to break away, the horse will have bolted for ever. Not just the European club game will be ruined, but the European international game too.
Even the global international game will assuredly suffer. The Tri-Nations can look on and content themselves that by retaining control of their club and provincial games from the onset of professionalism, not just their international teams, they have safeguarded themselves from such threats and crises. However, they shouldn’t be too smug.
The Rugby Champions Cup is notable for the absence of one key word, Europe (or European). This in turn gives substance to the grandiose plans for the new competition outlined in The Guardian last week through an unattributed source, or sources, which looked to accommodate from 2015 onwards the six South African sides who have competed in Super Rugby.
Not that the Rugby Champions’ Cup will see the light of day, or at any rate, not with the inclusion of the French clubs. Unlike the English clubs, who only need the approval of an RFU more concerned with hosting the 2015 World Cup, for the French clubs to enter such a competition they would need the approval of the French Federation and the French Minister of Sport.
This is enshrined in French law since 1998, and the FFR, as well as the IRB, have re-iterated their opposition to the Anglo-French clubs’ proposed new competition.
Bernard Lapasset told l’Equipe that the IRB will proceed with the mediation being pursued by the ERC, and without approval from the French government, the French clubs will have no grounds and no referees; not to mention the possibility of players who participate being disqualified from playing for their countries. Hence, in the French rugby media, the Rugby Champions Cup is being regarded as something of a non-event.
Throughout the last 15 months, it is striking to note how coaches and players have been completely excluded, not merely from the negotiations but from any consultation. They dare not, of course, bite the hand that feeds them. Therefore it’s almost worthless seeking out the views of even the intelligent and erudite Conor O’Shea, as RTE did a couple of weeks ago in his guise as a pundit, given his primary employers are Harlequins.
But there is, apparently, real disquiet amongst the players and coaches in France that the Heineken Cup is going to be scuppered, reflected by the comments of Bernard Laporte, coach of Heineken Cup champions Toulon, that the French clubs’ stance alongside their English counterparts, and the announcement of their new competition the day before the ERC launched this season’s competition in Paris, was “inelegant and inappropriate”.
In all of this you can’t help but feel there could be an element of bigotry. Would the hierarchy of the English and French clubs be quite as miffed if the Irish provinces hadn’t won five of the last eight Heineken Cups? And it clearly bugs them no end that the ERC should dare to have set up its head offices in Dublin, with an Irish chief executive to boot.
Their dismissive analysis of what the Celts and Italians bring to the European party blithely overlooks, for example, how the six pool games involving Leinster and Munster last season attracted more spectators on aggregate (122,000 and 115,000) than Leicester (106,000) and Toulouse (99,000).
The English have always been Eurosceptics, less so the French clubs in that, unlike the English, they’ve been ever-present in the tournament. That said, their priorities have always been with their bloated and over-hyped but increasingly remunerative Top 14, and they have been emboldened by the emergence of the Qatar-based beIN Sport as rivals to Canal+, which could potentially triple or quadruple their current €30 million per year deal with the latter, which is up for renewal.
Jean-Pierre Lux, the ERC president, stopped short of calling the English clubs “a lapdog for the English”, but only just, although clearly the LNR’s motives now appear to be primarily about money. Similarly the English clubs, who have hitherto accumulated losses every year, have been emboldened by the emergence of BT Sport in a broadband war with Sky.
This in turn means war for rugby, with millions at stake along with the very future of the game. That’s all. If there is to be a Heineken Cup or quasi-European Cup next season, then it could well be without the English clubs, whatever about the French, who may be brought back into the fold if the FFR, IRB and French Government remain resolute, and with an increased slice of the financial cake.
Either way, it’s increasingly easy to envisage a huge schism in the game.