ERC restate rejection of English TV deal


ERC’s chief executive Derek McGrath yesterday made it abundantly clear that until such time as Premiership Rugby walk away from their controversial deal with BT Vision, which includes rights to European matches for three years from 2014 onwards, there can be no resolution to the rift which threatens to splinter European rugby.

On the eve of a second stakeholders meeting to resolve a new ERC Accord in Rome next Monday and therefore save the Heineken and Amlin Cups beyond 2014, McGrath stressed the English clubs’ deal with BT is in contravention of IRB regulations, the existing ERC Accord which runs until 2014 and the English RFU’s Accord with their own Premiership club.

It also flies in the face of the ERC’s agreement with Sky to extend their coverage of the cups beyond 2014 for another three years (which the Premiership Rugby representative on the ERC board, Peter Wheeler, was party to) and ERC are clearly not for budging.

Speaking at yesterday’s Irish launch at the Aviva Stadium of the forthcoming 2012-13 competitions, McGrath said: “We’ve made our position very clear publicly that we reject any other deal that’s not done within the constraints and construction of the ERC Accord. We have separately, following proper process, renewed with a partner that will take us up to 15 years together, which is Sky Sports, and who have been fundamental for the growth of the tournament. Any other commercial dealings unfortunately, are just providing difficulty in the other sphere, which is outside the business and which is the constitution discussions. So it does provide us with a challenge.”

Next Monday, representatives of the ERC, the six competitions’ unions or federations, plus representatives of the English clubs, the French clubs and the Welsh regions come together for the second stakeholders meeting in Rome, which is also the occasion of the Italian launch and, most likely, an announcement that the Eternal City will stage its first Heineken Cup final, at the Stadio Olimpico in 2015.

But even within its sometimes troubled history, it’s doubtful whether the Heineken Cup has ever been hit by such a huge legal impasse as the current, conflicting deals with two rival television providers. Given such an impasse, you wonder what next Monday’s meeting can realistically achieve other than a show of unity against the Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty, who may well have secured the backing of the English club owners for his provocative actions and tactics, but still appears to be flying something of a kite.

Nevertheless, McGrath anticipates there will be “some clarity on certain positions”, adding: “Clearly there was a lot of heated discussion at the last meeting; a lot of honesty was expressed in terms of positions and there will be responses to that brought to the next meeting. We need to build some confidence in this process.”

With sizeable obstacles such as the competition format and ERC commercial structure, a new accord, if one comes to pass, will clearly take several meetings to finalise. Technically, the stakeholders have until the end of the 2013-14 season to agree upon a new accord, and the current deal was only finalised on the day of the 2007 final in Twickenham. But the French clubs have imposed a deadline of the end of this season, and McGrath is of similar mind.

“If you were to think about potential changes, we would want to get them done before the beginning of the ’14-15 season, and probably the ’13-14 season, in order to make sure that we can build in those changes. So that places certain pressures on us.”

Unlike the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby), which is the umbrella body for the Top 14 and ProD2 in France, Premiership Rugby does not represent English championship clubs. But although the RFU also interpret their agreement with Premiership Rugby differently from the latter, they are evidently not of a mind to go to war with the club owners again, and McGrath himself was not of a mind to explore the possibility of the Premiership clubs being replaced by clubs from the English championship.

“I’m not supposing that’s going to happen and that’s not what we want to happen. We want to see the same bodies represented going forward. We recognise we have some difficulty finding agreement in the short term. We’re very confident that’s what been achieved to date is going to get us to an agreement. However, it’s up to any union, strictly, to put forward whatever terms that country agrees will participate in European competition. That’s not an ERC decision. It’s up to each union ultimately to decide.”

It shouldn’t come to that, but, like everything else, it’s not beyond the bound of possibilities.

McGrath also confirmed ITV4 are no longer one of ERC’s broadcast partners this season due to “pure commercial realities”.

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