Future of Heineken Cup unresolved as new season nears

Next year’s final to be staged at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff

John Griffiths, Welsh 
minister for sport and culture, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff with the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup following yesterday’s announcement. Photograph: Huw Evans/Inpho

John Griffiths, Welsh minister for sport and culture, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff with the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup following yesterday’s announcement. Photograph: Huw Evans/Inpho

Thu, Jul 18, 2013, 07:27

The new season will start with the future of the Heineken Cup still unresolved meaning that teams in Europe’s three main leagues will go into the campaign uncertain whether finishing positions will matter anymore.

It is 14 months since the English and French clubs submitted two years’ notice to leave European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisation that runs the Heineken and Amlin Challenge cups unless a radically different participation agreement was drawn up. Various workshops and meetings have not found a way of removing a significant obstacle.

Some progress has been made over reforms wanted by the English and French clubs. These include making the Heineken and Amlin cups two 20-team tournaments involving all six nations, making league finishing positions the basis for qualification and splitting the money evenly between the three leagues that supply the participating teams. Premiership Rugby’s television deal with BT Vision last year has entrenched positions.

ERC has negotiated a contract extension with Sky beyond 2014, something the English clubs said it had no right to do because it did not have a tournament to sell without a new agreement being signed.

The RaboDirect Pro 12 countries were angry at Premiership Rugby unilaterally signing a television agreement that included provision for cross-border matches.

“Television is a sticking point and it has to be resolved if we are to move forward,” said the ERC chief executive, Derek McGrath, after announcing that the Millennium Stadium would host the final next May.

Viable initiative
“My understanding is the BT contract will be part of the English clubs’ participation; that is not something all the other stakeholders see as a viable initiative that will take us forward.

“The success of our competitions has been down to our central marketing strategy. Everything is controlled by one organisation and we have a clear identity.

“It is very difficult to see how you could do it any other way. If you have a negotiated agreement it is very hard to work in an environment where unilateral decisions are taken and that is why the process has taken time.”

The French clubs set last December as a deadline for negotiating a participation agreement but McGrath said there is no prospect of a quick settlement and the three leagues will start with teams in limbo, knowing that if the Heineken Cup does survive, the qualification process is likely to change, especially for RaboDirect teams.

“I’m confident we will get a negotiated agreement but it will take time . . ,” McGrath said. “We will re-engage in September, getting everyone round the table in the spirit of finding agreement. Everyone involved wants us to reach that point, but participation has to make sense for all six nations. The sooner we come to an agreement, the better for us, fans, teams . . sponsors and broadcasters.”

Guardian Service