Mood music between warring factions appears to be more pleasing to ears

Key is finding a resolution to biggest stumbling block toward continuation of a pan-European tournament, namely television rights

Tue, Feb 11, 2014, 14:14

There is so much political jostling in the current climate of uncertainty within European rugby, with both a pan-European Cup and now the Pro12 being used as political footballs, it appears that everyone is involved in unseemly games of self-serving brinkmanship, all with a desire toward acquiring more for themselves. And in nearly all instances that means more money.

So it is that Premiership Rugby want a bigger slice of the European cake, and specifically greater commercial rights, which would incorporate their new association with BT. The French clubs under their umbrella body, ligue nationale de rugby, want greater independence with regard to commercial rights as well.

The Welsh regions, hugely in debt and believing they are being drip fed to death by the WRU, want some of that BT deal as well and to that end have cut their ties with their fellow celts without so much as a by or leave.

The Italian Federation want to pay less of what amounts to an entry fee to the Pro12 to their fellow celts, who want more as the Italians bring less value to the competition financially, while now Treviso want more funding from their Federation along the lines of the backing they give Zebre.

So as things stand the Pro12 has a television deal for next season, but no title sponsor, none of the Welsh regions and no Treviso. Meanwhile, there are tentative steps towards a Heineken Cup which has the backing of the Six Nations, and more reluctantly that of LNR, but not the English clubs nor, now, the Welsh regions.

Instead, the English clubs – having failed to create a breakaway Anglo-French competition – have settled for an Anglo-Welsh league. Yet, while that is a shot across the bows of the WRU by the indebted regions, as well as one by PRL at all and sundry, such a competition would have little or no chance of getting off the ground were there a European Cup in place. There simply wouldn’t be room in the seasonal calendar, while raising all sorts of problems regarding European qualification.

Stumbling block
The key is finding a resolution to the biggest stumbling block toward the continuation of a pan-European tournament, namely television rights. That the various stakeholders are formally coming together for a second time in two weeks confirms the prevailing view that the mood music between the once warring factions is altogether better given intensive behind the scenes discussions since the turn of the year.

Clearly, there remains a strong desire on the part of the Six Nations not only to have a European Cup, but one involving the English clubs, and the latter must surely prefer that option themselves to the mooted Anglo-Welsh League. The regions must also know this too, and therefore that they are being used somewhat by the English clubs, for if there is a resolution to the impasse which results in the restoration of a European Cup, there will be no Anglo-Welsh League.

The idea of the latter is fairly risible anyhow given the performances of the regions in both the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup in recent years, along with their mass exodus of players, and it would be hard to see them avoiding relegation from the Premiership to virtual oblivion if they weren’t ring-fenced. But it does demonstrate the degree to which their relationship with the WRU and their CEO Roger Lewis has broken down, as well as the desperation of their collective plight.

It is perhaps significant that ERC were not at last week’s stakeholders meeting in Heathrow, nor tomorrow’s in Paris. For starters, the ERC-driven mediation talks have clearly reached an end. Perhaps it was also significant that on foot of the stakeholders meeting last week, the ERC board decided to withhold the tranche of payments due to participating countries by the end of January.

Legal advice
While flexing their own muscles, they must assuredly have had legal advice on the matter and must be aware of the consequences if the stakeholders resolve to re-create a Heineken/European Cup under an alternative governing body, and specifically therefore ERC’s need to have cash reserves in the event of them going into liquidation.

That this is the most significant and pivotal few months in the professional era, for the long-term future of the European game and, by extension, the game in general is enhanced with each passing week. The European game could crumble, complete with recourse to the courts and costly legal battles, or alternatively, were a pan-European competition involving all existing stakeholders to emerge from the saga, an enhanced Pro12 would almost automatically fall into place.

How else would the Italian franchises and the Welsh regions qualify for a European Cup? Furthermore, a more exacting and meritocratic qualification format, with Sky on board and a new title sponsor, could inject the Pro12 with fresh meaning and interest. Accordingly, there is a League board meeting on Thursday.

All the while, the IRFU have sought to plot a steady straight line, with unity a strength and their commitment to both the Heineken Cup or a pan-European Cup, as well as the pro12, unwavering. For sure this is largely because they are dependent on the goodwill of others. Hence, rather than a ship in choppy waters, as the IRFU CEO Philip Browne has readily admitted the Union resemble more a cork bobbling in the high seas.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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