Could this be the beginning of the end for the Heineken Cup?
The positions of the French and English clubs look to be entrenched
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.