Could this be the beginning of the end for the Heineken Cup?
The positions of the French and English clubs look to be entrenched
Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk of Toulon raise the Heineken Cup after their final win this year in Dublin. The competition looks increasingly undre threat. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
The Heineken Cup has always been a political football or off-the-pitch battleground, and with the same protagonists. In one corner has been the English and French clubs, increasingly wealthy and militant, and in the opposite are the Celtic and Italian Unions and Federations, with the French Federation (FFR) and RFU tip-toeing in between.
It was the same in the inaugural 1996/’97 tournament when the English (and the Scots) did not participate, and likewise when the English did not compete in 1998/’98, and again in 2007, when a seven-year accord was agreed on the eve of the 2007 final in London.
The English and French clubs have always agitated for more power and money (the kernel of the rift), and the threat to the tournament’s future was very real then, but appears even more acute now, for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, the French and English clubs have been buoyed by the emergence of rival pay-per-view sports channels in the shape of BT Sport and, in France, the Qatar-owned beIN Sport, neither of whom were around in ’07.
Premiership Rugby are already into the first season of a much trumpeted four-year deal worth €190 million with BT, which contentiously includes the rights to European matches. The bloated Top 14, which is booming, is in the last season of a four-year deal worth €120 million with Canal+, and have entered negotiations for a new improved deal which could triple that amount, all the more so as beIN Sport could trump whatever package Canal+ come up with.
Do without Europe
Furthermore, for all their apparent resolve to form a new Anglo-French competition, there is an increased feeling within the upper echelons of the French clubs that that they could do without Europe. It would free up nine weekends of an over-crowded itinerary, and even provide scope for an expansion to a Top 16.
Secondly, the IRB, in the shape of its then pro-active president Syd Millar, stepped in to bring people together and help facilitate an accord in 2007. He was also perhaps helped by the standing of men such as Francis Baron, who was then eight years into a long-term stint as chief executive of the RFU, and its then chairman Martyn Thomas.
This week Thomas told Radio Wales that English clubs are actually tied in to the existing tournament for another year. “There’s a contractual obligation there that the RFU can enforce,” he claimed. “It not only provides that they will play in Europe to the end of the season 2014-2015, it also provides that they will play in no other professional competitions.”
Thomas, who left his position of RFU chairman in November 2011, accused the English and French clubs of “grandstanding”, adding: “The ERC (European Rugby Cup) agreement was signed, and it was signed subsequently to an agreement that the RFU and PRL [Premier Rugby Ltd] and each individual club entered into and that was in 2007. One of the terms of the agreement was that the Premiership clubs would remain playing in Europe until the end of that agreement with the RFU. The RFU have got to stand up and be counted, it’s not a popularity competition being at the RFU.”
Thomas also expects the French Rugby Federation and IRB to block any move to form a new tournament. “The clubs in England require the consent of their union, the teams in France require the consent of their union. Pierre Camou is probably one of the strongest presidents in world rugby – he is a tough guy. Also, because it’s a cross border (competition) they require the consent of the IRB and they have a French chairman in Bernard Lapasset,” added Thomas. “There is no way that those two French men are going to give consent for this to occur.”
Alas, Camou is apparently on holidays currently, while the current RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie and its chairman Bill Beaumont, along with the rest of the RFU have little stomach for taking on their clubs, all the more so as their primary concern is a smooth build-up to the 2015 World Cup in England.
The Doomsday scenario
The consequences of there being no Heineken Cup next season is almost too grim to contemplate for Celtic and Italian rugby.