English and French bully boys can afford to play the long game

Tactics take European rugby to the brink

Tue, Oct 1, 2013, 11:00

Since the game went professional on August 25th 1995 there have been a few skirmishes along the way but it’s always felt as if we’ve been waiting for the big one. A great war. And maybe this is it.

Clearly too, the impasse in the row over the future of European club rugby has provided the game with its biggest mess since the European Cup came into being in 1995, and the mess could yet take to the courts.

It was only ever going to be a matter of time before the English club owners threatened court action. Last week Nigel Wray echoed the words of Bath multi-millionaire club owner Bruce Craig when the Saracens chairman publicly and charmingly declared to the IRB chief executive Brett Gosper that if the IRB sought to block a breakaway Anglo-French tournament, “see you in court mate”. In any event, please, please spare us broadcasting soundbites from English club owners or their spokespersons outlining their grievances about format or meritocratic qualification. It’s long since ceased to be about that, if it ever was in the first place.

Throughout the five stakeholders’ meetings, the Celts and Italians brought all manner of revised formats to the table, be it 32 or 24 teams, but Paul Goze of France’s LNR and England’s PRL’s Mark McCafferty only wanted to talk about their proposed 20-team format. They were not for compromising. It’s hard not to believe that, prodded by a relatively small group of multi-millionaire club owners, they always had a different agenda in mind, namely power and control.

Money talks
In this delightful post-capitalist world, money talks like never before and money wields muscle like never before. The money men are worshipped, all the more so when they extend their largesse into sporting environs. Witness the genuflecting toward Roman Abramovitch at Chelsea and the Abu Dhabi owners of Manchester City.

For them, read Craig, Jacky Lorenzetti (Racing Metro president), Mourad Boudlejall (Toulon owner) and co. The current battle is classically neoconservatist capitalism at work. The money men are trying to bully their way out of regulation while the regulators dither, for there’s little doubt the ERC and IRB ought to have woken up and smelled the coffee beans a little sooner, and the appointment of a mediator now looks like a case of after-the-horse-has-bolted. Furthermore the divide-and-conquer tactics are clearly designed to see who will crack first, with Wray hinting that the Welsh would be particularly welcome in the Premiership.

Yet what exactly are the PRL and LNR offering? A tournament with a name, Rugby Champions Cup, and that’s it so far. No “come into the parlour said to the spider to the fly” invites have landed with the provinces yet. So they have no teams. No sponsors. No dates. No format. Even the television deal with BT has been shrouded in mystery, with supposedly only the RFU having seen its contents. By contrast, the ERC has a tournament which has doubled revenue since 2004-05 alone.

The IRB have no option but to hang tough. Next stop the autumn Tests, and then the Six Nations (European rugby’s golden goose, not the costly World Cup), with the clubs dictating more and more when players are released.

As things stand, the Top 14 in France, and to a lesser extent the 12 Premiership clubs in England, are in danger of gobbling up too much of the international market. How much more money and players do they want? Already bloated, the French Top 14 cannot cater for all these countries.

The Players
Also typical of this post-capitalist world is that the workers, ie the players, are the most incoherent, or at any rate, the least heard, save for continually stating how brilliant the Heineken Cup has been and how the absence of a European competition would be a terrible loss; without saying any more for fear of annoying their employers. They, along with the supporters, could be the biggest losers if there is no Heineken Cup, or no pan-European tournament. Of all the landscapes out there, that is a distinct possibility. Certainly, it’s still impossible to see a breakaway Anglo-French competition coming into being without the PRL and LNR taking recourse to the courts.

Things have clearly become personalised if Premiership Rugby will not take part in any competition run by ERC (or any organisation based in Dublin). One can only imagine morale among the 20-strong staff in the ERC, and nor can any of this be helpful for them commercially or the provinces, all the more so with around 15 players out of contract in both Munster and Ulster at the end of the season, along with a fair few in Leinster. Compounding this uncertainty is the threat of English clubs soon having Lorenzetti-style muscle.

Perhaps there might yet be a European Cup without the English clubs, if the French can be persuaded to return to the fold. However, the English and French have another tactic up their sleeve. Armed with their BT monies the English clubs, like BT themselves and certainly the French clubs, can afford to play the long game. Admittedly, some Anglo and French clubs can afford to play the long game longer than others – Saracens and Bath, one imagines, can take the hit better than, say, Wasps or London Irish.

But the Celts and the Italians cannot. And the bully boys know that.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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