IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset’s comments look a significant development in rift

Well-placed sources maintain Pierre Camou is working assiduously toward saving the ERC-run tournament

Major doubts still surround the future of the Heineken Cup, but recent comments from IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset sound encouraging.

Major doubts still surround the future of the Heineken Cup, but recent comments from IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset sound encouraging.

Tue, Nov 5, 2013, 12:00

All quiet on the western European front. At least the various parties in the ongoing rift over the future of European club rugby have not been hurling insults at each other of late, which suggests further dialogue is continuing apace behind the scene. Nonetheless, notions that the respective Unions have made a sizeable climbdown in the face of demands and threats by the Anglo-French club alliance also appear wide of the mark.

On foot of the six Unions and Federations from England, France, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy agreeing to tournament format and meritocratic qualification at ERC-appointed mediation talks, by far the most significant development were the comments of IRB Chairman Bernard Lapasset at last week’s draw for the 2014 Women’s World Cup. They are particularly significant as they would assuredly have also followed discussions between Lapasset and Pierre Camou, president of the French Federation, a position Lapasset held from 1991 to 2008.

They were also significant as they were the first comments yet by the IRB chairman on this row. Although he was largely conciliatory and diplomatic, Lapasset said PRL and LNR proposals for the so-called Rugby Champions Cup were “not particularly credible”, adding: “Neither one league nor the other should govern the world of rugby. It should be ruled through a balance and respect for each other.” Calling on the parties to “take time to reflect” and “to keep a cool head” Lapasset said he would leave time to all parties to think and talk constructively to allow for a coming together.

Hold centre stage
Given the November Test window will now hold centre stage, and consume time for many involved in running the game at international level, even if the ERC-appointed mediator Graeme Mew finds an agreed time for further mediation talks, it seems we may now be entering a ‘time-out’ in this tortuous process.

In publicly agreeing to the PRL and LNR demands for tournament reform, the Unions have also called the Anglo-French bluff. For if that was all the PRL wanted when they gave two years’ notice to withdraw from the Heineken Cup, they’d be back in the fold now. That they have subsequently shifted the goalposts and demanded that the ERC be disbanded merely confirms that that the PRL, and LNR president Paul Goze, were never looking for reform but were merely making a grab for power.

Camou a key player
Camou remains a key player in this saga, not least as FFR backing is enshrined in French law, and Lapasset’s comments can be interpreted as a signal of Camou’s continued resistance to the Champions Cup and ongoing loyalty to an ERC-run tournament. Well-placed sources maintain he is working assiduously toward saving the latter, and will ensure French participation in the Heineken Cup or an offshoot of that tournament, whether it be a frontline entry from the leading Top 14 clubs or not.

As with the Anglo-French axis, now seemingly buttressed by the Welsh regions, for how long the six respective Unions and Federations remain as one is also a moot point, because the next round of mediation talks will have to address the much trickier obstacles of governance and then, following that, the elephants in the room that are the conflicting Sky and BT deals.

Whereas BT’s resident rugby pundits such as Austin Healy have been touting the Rugby Champions Cup, both Sky and its pundits have remained tight-lipped, but it is understood that Sky are desperately keen to retain the Heineken Cup.

It also has to be said that the English clubs have taken a huge gamble in jettisoning Sky, who did so much to promote the English club game, by throwing in their lot with BT, who are a long way behind Sky in the sports broadcasting market. Of course, it is somewhat trite to cite figures such as the 8,000 viewers for the Clare Balding Show on October 11th, or the 13,000 viewers for the two Dannys, Baker and Kelly, on one Friday night. But like ESPN, ITV Digital and Setanta before them, BT will have to be patient and sustain heavy financial losses before one day becoming any kind of a rival to Sky. Perhaps their pockets are deeper. Perhaps their shareholders will be patient. But it remains a huge gamble by Mark McCafferty and PRL.

Bruce Craig’s threat
Nor should the Unions and the IREB be cowed by Bruce Craig’s threat to take them to the European courts for restraint of trade, any less than his forecast/threat of “financial oblivion” for the Celts and Italians. Notwithstanding the existing Sky contract which had been renewed by the ERC board, at which the PRL were represented, the EU permits Uefa to collectively sell Champions League rights because it maximised income that was subsequently distributed across all of European football (just as ERC does). The EU insisted on various provisions to maximise competition among broadcasters but agreed that this breach of competition law was both legitimately justified and proportionate.

Indeed, with PRL’s BT deal in mind, the various European Unions and the IRB might have a very strong case if they were to accuse the breakaway clubs of anti-competitive behaviour.

The most feasible outcome remains an IRB-sanctioned competition, perhaps with some concession to the English and French clubs. A breakaway competition without collective selling of the media rights appears far less feasible.

Rumours of the ERC’s imminent demise, like that of the Heineken Cup, may yet prove premature, but English media reports presenting the Rugby Champions Cup appear even more premature, much like any impending sight of a resolution to this crisis. This one is still set to run, and run, and run.

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