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.
Under the current accord the English and French receive the lions’ share, circa €10 million each (which is hardly a pittance for nine weeks’ work), whereas the IRFU and WRU receive around €4.5 million, with the Scots and Italians under €3 million each. The remaining monies consist of merit payments of approximately €450,000 for each quarter-finalist, with extra bonuses going to the semi-finalists and finalists, as well as the winner.
“It’s a significant chunk of money,” admitted IRFU chief executive Philip Browne this week. “Having said that, if we have to wear it for a year or whatever, we have to look at that, but the bottom line is that we have to run a sustainable sport.”
Thus, were there no Heineken Cup next season, it would, admits Browne, “effectively call into question the viability of professional rugby outside France and England within Europe, and if that happens it calls into question the future of the Six Nations championship and international rugby.”
The IRFU’s total turnover per annum is around the €60 million mark, 85 per cent of which is from international rugby, so the potential loss of €5-6 million per year would have huge ramifications. While the IRFU might be able to see out a year with no revenue streams from a pan-European competition, they couldn’t for much longer than that. For starters, they could no longer afford to maintain four professional teams in each of the provinces.
“The consequences would be very serious,” admits Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson. “It would definitely unsettle Irish players if they weren’t playing in a major European competition and it would seriously affect our financial model. It would also be a terrible pity for something which has such a cachet and presence, and which people really like and enjoy, to be thrown away because we couldn’t sit in a room and sort it out.”
Whatever about Irish rugby, the game in Scotland and Italy is in an even more fragile state, and the Welsh player drain would assuredly be accentuated.
Throughout the course of the four stakeholders meetings which have taken place since the English and French clubs served notice of their intentions, the Celts and Italians have stressed their willingness to negotiate on the issues of meritocratic qualification, tournament format and financial distribution. They repeated this at last Wednesday’s board meeting, also attended by René Bouscatel of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and Peter Wheeler of Premiership Rugby.
The English and the French clubs have legitimate gripes. For example, Zebre lost all 28 competitive games last season – 22 in the Rabo Pro 12 and six in the Heineken Cup – yet are in this season’s Heineken Cup again.
Leinster have suggested a revised qualification format of the top seven teams in the Premiership and Top 14, the top eight in the Rabo Pro12 and the winners of the Heineken and Amlin Cups. Within this framework, a qualifier from each of the four countries in the Rabo Pro12 could be enshrined, meaning that a place in the top five would ensure qualification. “I have no doubt this would add to the interest in the Rabo Pro12 and make it a better competition,” says Dawson.
Whereas the Unions and Federations oversee, and have a duty of care, for the entire game under their jurisdiction, the English and French clubs do not. But another difference from 2007 is that even more English and French clubs have fallen into the hands of millionaire businessmen such as Bruce Craig, who bought Bath in April 2010 not long after selling his pharmaceutical services company Markern for €1.16 billion. Or Mourad Boudjellal, the comic book publishing millionaire at Toulon and so on.
Tellingly, it was Craig who accompanied Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, to Paris to meet with French club representatives a week before stating their intention to leave the Heineken Cup and set up their own cross-border competition. These businessmen are not inclined to tug the forelock toward unions or federations.
After Wednesday’s board meeting the ERC resolved to resume stakeholders’ meetings urgently, with the Welsh RFU chief executive Roger Lewis suggesting the appointment of a mediator or facilitator agreeable to all parties. A tad ominously though, within a day the English and French clubs dug their heels in even more deeply.
McCafferty commented: “I don’t know how many more ways there are to say this. Our discussions with ERC are at an end. We are fully committed to setting up a new tournament with our colleagues in France, although as we’ve always indicated, we’d be more than happy if teams from other nations joined us.” Come into the parlour said the spider to the fly? The Celts and Italians categorically stated at Wednesday’s board meeting that they will not be taking up the invitation.
Echoing McCafferty, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby chairman Paul Goze said: “We’re not threatening not to participate in the European Cup – we’re saying we will not participate. We asked for a revision of the format of the Heineken Cup and some financial redistribution and did everything possible to change things, but without success. Nobody can prevent us from establishing a new competition. The presidents of our Top 14 clubs have all given us their approval, which is why we can stand together on this. The English are on the same wavelength.”
Admittedly, there was a caveat of sorts here too, as Goze concluded: “either they accept our proposal – which was made a year and a half ago I’d like to remind you – or we’re out.”
In the last 48 hours Bouscatel and Wheeler distanced themselves from ERC’s statement, Wheeler last night echoing Bouscatel’s “surprise” at its contents and specifically that that “no decision was made by the ERC board to reiterate that European club rugby competitions must necessarily be organised by ERC.” As regards a stakeholders’ meeting, he added: “It is the sole right of the individual parties (unions and league organisations) to take a view on any such proposal.’”
In response, an ERC statement maintained that the board requested the ERC to convene a meeting of the stakeholders and “consider the appointment of a mediator”, adding: “A date for the next Accord meeting will be announced shortly.”
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday, the chairman of Premiership Rugby Quentin Smith re-affirmed their desire to start up a new competition under their auspices and to leave the ERC umbrella regardless, and concluded: “What ERC should be doing is to concentrate on running the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups this season as successfully as they can and then a mechanism for running itself down because there will no longer be a need for it.” And Smith is a professional mediator.
In the midst of all this, like his Welsh counterpart, Browne remains hopeful that there might yet be a willingness on both sides to find a resolution. “A ‘beggar my neighbour policy’, in a sport which is as small as rugby compared to the likes of soccer, is madness. Absolute madness. As to whether we will get there I don’t know.”
If another stakeholders meeting should come to pass, Browne said: “My view is that if we have to be locked into a room for two days to sort it out then lock us in for two days to sort it out.” In other words, no more 1pm deadlines as those around the table have flights to catch.
Given the threat to the European game generally by the current imbroglio, you’d have thought the IRB would be taking an acute interest in ongoing developments. Maybe they are but their silence is deafening.
The current impasse is crying out for intervention from the RFU and FFR or, failing that, from the IRB, because if the IRB don’t get this right they and the unions will have effectively lost control of the game for ever more.
The RFU’s chief executive, Ian Ritchie, issued a non-committal statement last night in support of “the Premiership clubs seeking greater meritocracy across the competitions and appropriate financial distribution. It is also important to ensure that rugby across Europe continues to thrive and grow.
“In terms of authorising any future competition, it is critical to see all the confirmed details, before being able to assess its merits. In order to find a successful conclusion, we are urging discussions to be held with an open mind, with a view to compromise on both sides.”