Anglo-French alliance look set to break from ERC Heineken Cup

Demise of European Cup would free up nine weekends to accommodate Top 14, perhaps expanding into a Top 16


The English and French clubs have fired a serious shot across the bows of the Heineken Cup on the eve of an ERC board meeting this morning, with separate statements indicating a greater willingness to break away from the European body and their flagship competitions.

As with the outgoing seven- year Accord which was sealed on the eve of the 2007 Heineken Cup final, a similar if even more threatening game of brinkmanship is being played out. After Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premiership Rugby, and Bruce Craig, owner of Bath, flew to Paris last week to meet with representatives of the French clubs’ umbrella body, the LNR, the former body yesterday said negotiations regarding the future of the Heineken Cup “have now ended” and announcing proposals for a new tournament next season featuring English and French sides.

Notice period
A year ago, the English and French clubs served the requisite two-year notice to leave both competitions unless the format for both Cups were revamped in a new Accord. Since then, four meetings have failed to make any significant progress. The Anglo-French alliance want a reduction from 24 to 20 clubs in the Heineken Cup, reducing the number of Rabo Pro participants from 12 to six teams, and an ensuing three-way financial share-out.

Even if an agreement were brokered regarding the format, the issue of television rights remain. The Premiership clubs included rights to their Heineken Cup home matches in a £152 million deal with BT, after the ERC Board, including PR representative Peter Wheeler, extended their long-term deal with Sky.

Noting the failure of negotiations so far, an LNR statement added: “The clubs of the Top 14 wish to repeat that they will only take part in competitions that also involve the English clubs. They have also asked the LNR to . . . implement a competition for the 2014/2015 season, joining together by necessity the English and French clubs, and which will be open to the other nations.”

PRL then announced that “discussions have been unsuccessful.” Noting that “the French clubs will not participate in any competition unless it includes the English clubs, the clubs have now asked Premiership Rugby to take immediate action to put in place a competition for 2014/15 to include the French and English clubs but which will also be open to teams from other countries.”

Approval needed
Such a competition would require the imprimatur of the respective Unions and the IRB, with the LNR legally obliged to obtain FFR approval.

However, the LNR, which is in negotiations with the French Federation (FFR) over their roll-over four-year deal on player release, are also in discussions with Canal+ regarding a new television deal for coverage of the Top 14, which is liable to double the existing €120 million four-year deal all the more so as, like BT in England, the Qatar based BeIN Sport are keen to acquire French club rugby. The demise of the Heineken Cup would free up nine weekends each season to accommodate the Top 14, perhaps even expanding into a Top 16.

The Anglo-French double whammy was in response to the ERC president Jean-Pierre Lux last week declaring “the English clubs are hiding behind a (TV) contract, the details of which nobody has seen”.