Here’s hoping pivotal EPCR meeting comes up with some answers

It will be interesting to see if new cup competition embraces the past

No more Heineken Cup and possibly no more Heineken involvement: “All those bully boy threats of breakaway leagues, possible court action et al, have left European rugby looking like damaged goods.”

No more Heineken Cup and possibly no more Heineken involvement: “All those bully boy threats of breakaway leagues, possible court action et al, have left European rugby looking like damaged goods.”

 

The season is almost over. The last rites are about to be passed on the Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup, with the last finals in Cardiff a fortnight hence. The make-up of next season’s 20-team European Rugby Champions Cup is now known save for the winners of the Anglo-French play-off and yet still there has been nothing since the announcement of the brave new world by the stakeholders in the new competitions on April 10th.

Apparently the executive committee of the new tournament organisation – to be called ‘European Professional Club Rugby’ (EPCR) – will meet in advance of the first meeting of the new full board of directors at a hotel adjacent to Charles de Gaulle airport tomorrow. Presumably on foot of this, there will be some outline of how EPCR will take over from ERC, specifically the draw for next season’s new competitions and to what degree the expertise of ERC and/or its staff will be involved.

The three EPCR vice-presidents will be Paul McNaughton, Rene Fontes and Bruce Craig, representing the Pro12, and the umbrella groups for the French clubs, ligue nationale de rugby (LNR) and Premiership Rugby (PRL).

They will be in charge of commercial matters and assisting with the preparations of board meetings, and will also consist of the director general and the new independent chairman of the EPCR Board.

The new director general of EPCR, effectively Derek McGrath’s replacement as chief executive of ERC, will apparently be Jacques Pineau, according to the Sud Ouest newspaper which has been accurate in its information throughout this saga. Pineau has been a key figure of the Michelin hierarchy and has served for 10 years as deputy director general for the last 10 years at Clermont Auvergne, and aged 70 is described as a workaholic. The new board will consist of the same nine stakeholders, namely representative from the LNR, PRL, the Welsh regions and the Unions or Federations within the respective six nations.

Final place
As things stand, Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Glasgow, the Ospreys, and the sixth-placed Scarlets will be joined by Treviso in the Champions Cup. From France, Toulon, Montpellier, Clermont, Toulouse, Racing Metro and Castres have qualified, with Saracens, Northampton, Leicester, Harlequins, Bath and Sale qualifying from England.

The final place will be filled by the winner of a play-off between the two seventh-placed sides in the Top 14 and Premiership, namely Stade Francais and Wasps (beaten 74-13 at Northampton last Saturday). According to LNR and PRL this will be two-legged affair to be held in London and Paris on May 17th and 24th.

The seeding for the draw will apparently be tiered, and will keep teams from the same countries apart as much as possible, but will not take any recourse to past achievements, as was the case with the seeding for the Heineken Cup. Three of the top seeds will feature the respective winners of the Top 14, Premiership and Pro 12. The other two seeds will be drawn randomly from the three beaten finalists in those competitions. The runners-up who miss out on top seedings will then go into the second tier of seeds and so on.

Vocal criticisms
Midi Olimpique has consistently reported that EPCR’s office will be based in Neuchâtel in Switzerland, as part of more cost-effective operation. The PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty, along with Craig, Nigel Wray of Saracens and others in the English club game, have been the most vocal in their criticisms of ERC, and specifically their failure to yield more of a commercial dividend. Whether they can replace one title sponsor, namely Heineken and their estimated €10 million, with four to six partners and double this income remains to be seen, certainly in time for next season.

Aside from the timescale, the very public and often very aggressive way in which some of the leading protagonists behaved between June 1st, 2012 (when the English and French clubs first announced their decision to leave the Heineken Cup) and April 10th, does not reflect well on European rugby.

Aside from the residual bitterness and lack of trust which must exist between the representatives of what are, after all, the same nine stakeholders, all those bully boy threats of breakaway leagues, possible court action et al, have left European rugby looking like damaged goods.

Ultimately, even BT and Sky did not get what they wanted or were promised. Looking at how Sky, especially, have been treated and to a degree Heineken, would any putative new partners be impressed by the events of the last two years? Will Heineken, whose rumoured title sponsorship of the Pro12 looks very out of sync with their interest in major pan-European or global events, be interested in having any involvement? Will the main figures now driving the new brand all of a sudden be seen as the good guys?

It will also be interesting to see if EPCR embraces the past and thus embraces next season as the 20th season of European Cup rugby, or à la football’s Premier League is so full of its own importance that it is declared as the first season. If the questionable seeding is anything to go by, then possibly not.

Maybe, just maybe, answers to all these questions and more will be provided after tomorrow’s pivotal opening meetings of the Executive Committee and EPCR board of directors in Paris.
gthornley@irishtimes.com

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