Heineken Cup could face boycott by English clubs

Premiership Rugby statement makes clear kernel of the matter has always been about power


There has been so much posturing, and so many statements over this latest impasse regarding the future of European club rugby – not least the voluble English clubs – that one can never definitely say never.

However, yesterday’s “unanimous” decision by the English Premiership clubs after a day-long emergency meeting in central London to “not participate in any competitions run by ERC”, strongly suggests next season’s Heineken Cup, akin to the 1998-99 season, will proceed without them.

Ever since the outset of this dispute, the Anglo-French demands for meritocratic qualification, tournament format and financial distribution have clearly been something of a red herring, given all of those demands have been acceded to by the six founding unions and federations of European’s premier club rugby tournament.

The kernel of the matter has always been about power and money, and emboldened by their €190 million four-year deal with British Telecom, which is in direct conflict with ERC’s renewed deal with BT’s broadband rivals Sky, yesterday’s statement scarcely made any secret of this.

“ERC does not structurally recognise the role of the leagues and clubs in driving the success of club competitions, under the overall governance of unions,” said the majority of commercial value is created by the independent clubs which represent 75 per cent of the participants.”

“It’s a pity it’s come to this,” commented IRFU chief executive Philip Browne last night. “Short of governance, everything they asked for has been delivered, but the governance of the professional game is important to the unions because what happens in the . . . game cannot be divorced from what happens in the wider game – that’s the view of the unions.”

Some of the other contents in the PRL statement are, at the very least, open to interpretation. “Proposals put forward to address a new structure within a Rugby Champions Cup were agreed by a majority of the unions in October, alongside meritocratic competition formats and equitable financial distributions. However, these have not been accepted by all.”

This presumably refers to behind-the-scenes meetings between the PRL and representatives from the Irish, Welsh and Scottish Unions, but at no point did the latter trio agree to participating in the Champions Cup, much less hand over governance or the right to sell television coverage of a pan-European tournament individually.

The PRL statement also added: “The English clubs have worked exhaustively over the last 18 months to propose solutions to the issues with the current European competitions and to provide a sustainable platform to grow the game in the various countries.”

Indeed, so exhaustively has their work been over the last 18 months, during which the Champions Cup was presented as a fait accompli, that they did not even attend mediation talks. The statement concluded by stating: “The English clubs are now pursuing other options.”

These options would appear to be decidedly limited.

On foot of the LNR’s announcement last week to stay within the Heineken Cup and under the ERC fold, chief executive of Premiership Rugby Mark McCafferty reputedly wrote to all the English clubs stressing the PRL’s need to find out the details of what the French were saying, and to convene a meeting to examine their options if they stuck to a boycott. These include expanding the Premiership to, say, 14 teams with additions from the Championship, or to 15 or 16 with additions from Wales, or, generating a new competition including South African sides, whose franchises are apparently unhappy with Super Rugby.

There would also be strong links between them and Saracens. However, the South African franchises are under contract to the Super 15 for another season.

Welsh regions
Inviting the Welsh regions into the Premiership would appeal to those cash-strapped regions (Richard Hibbard and Rhys Priestland are the next rumoured departures to Gloucester and Wasps respectively) given they are at war with the WRU. However, this would open up a huge can of worms, and would be a short-term option with a host of longer-term difficulties given an expanded Anglo-Welsh Premiership would clash with participation in any future European competition. Furthermore, as with any new competition involving South Africans, this expansion would also require RFU and IRB approval and thus run the risk of isolating the English clubs and Welsh regions even further, and making them the renegades of the game globally.

The silence from the RFU, fearful of upsetting the clubs in the midst of negotiation a new accord with them less than two years out from hosting the World Cup, has been deafening. In the midst of this there is the critical presence of British Telecom, embroiled in a broadband war with rivals Sky. Like everything about PRL’s deal with BT how much of this is contingent upon televising European games is unclear, with some speculating that the figure is in the region of €62.5 million.

Whatever the European part of the deal, the degree to which the English clubs could “stick to their guns” and play the long game hinged upon the degree to which BT could do so. Put another way, it’s doubtful BT would be too displeased the English clubs will not be partaking in a Heineken Cup televised by Sky.