Simple truth – English and French clubs never wanted to salvage Heineken Cup

Tactics of English clubs suggest it was about power and control all along

So the truth is out. The English clubs especially, and their French cohorts, never had any real interest in salvaging the Heineken Cup, even if it was reformed to incorporate a revamped format, ensuring change in financial carve-up in favour of them and meritocratic qualification. Their resolve is to have the ERC wound up and for them to run a new tournament, proving it was always about control and power.

Hardly a day has gone by in the last week without various spokespersons within Premiership Rugby, the umbrella group for the English clubs, saying they had no interest in discussions with their Celtic and Italian brethren. Following on from Friday's declaration by the chairman of Premiership Rugby Quentin Smith that the ERC should concentrate on running itself down, over the weekend the PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty and Nigel Wray, chairman of Saracens, poured further cold water on saving the cup.

McCafferty accepted the Six Nations, being an international competition should be run by the unions, (how generous of him) but that the European Cup, being a club tournament (not factually correct) should be run by them, not by the ERC. Wray said the clubs would be "crazy" to remain within the Heineken Cup fold under existing rules, but made no mention of a Celtic/Italian willingness to change the rules.

Undermine negotiations
McCafferty has always been the person most inclined to speak publicly and undermine negotiations within the Heineken Cup stakeholders, and usually to an unquestioning English media reluctant to reveal that the Celts and the Italians are willing to concede ground on the reforms.

McCafferty even poured scorn on resuming negotiations with an independent mediator, further demonstrating they have no interest in reaching a compromise. Firstly, even if the English and French clubs showed a willingness to come back to the table there remains the hornet’s nest of conflicting television deals. In September of last year Premiership Rugby announced they had signed a four-year TV deal with BT Sport worth €190 million which included the rights to show English clubs’ European games.

ERC maintain this was in contravention of their regulations and those of the IRB, that PRL were not entitled to sell the rights to Heineken Cup games in their jurisdiction. Nor, claim the acutely frustrated Celts and Italians, have McCafferty and co clarified the details of the deal and whether this included games outside their jurisdiction. The BT deal was also in contravention of a four-year deal agreed the previous June by the ERC Board with Sky. Effectively this means two conflicting TV deals and no apparent desire on the part of the English and French clubs to re-enter the room.

Premiership Rugby are also in direct contravention of their agreement with the RFU according to the latter’s former chairman Martyn Thomas, which every club signed up to in 2007. Under the terms of this agreement, according to Thomas, the clubs are not only bound to playing in the Heineken and Amlin Cups until the end of next season, 2014-15, but “it also provides that they will play in no other professional competitions”.

This has received scant media attention across the water, nor has it been disputed by the English clubs, yet they maintain the only option is a competition run by them. That there is also no stomach to enforce this agreement within the RFU was underlined when its chief executive produced a non-committal statement stating their desire to see negotiations resumed – something McCafferty, Wray and Smith have ruled out.

The ERC, straining to retain the middle ground, have largely kept quiet for much of the last year, and so too the unions, until the clearly-exasperated IRFU chief executive Philip Browne went public last week, as did his Welsh counterpart Roger Lewis.

However, such was the frustration of Jean-Pierre Lux, the ERC chairman, over the misinformation in the French media, and the pronouncements of the LNR president Paul Goze, that he felt compelled to write to the French rugby paper Midi Olympique, which published his letter yesterday. Lux maintained the Anglo-French campaign for their own tournament will not be sanctioned by the federations-unions and the IRB.

Over the past 18 seasons, he wrote, the ERC competitions had generated €500 million, and brought the club game on to the international stage in tournaments popular with players, coaches, broadcasters and especially the fans, and called for a stop to press releases and “dramatic ultimatums” as well as vowing to find an independent mediator.

One Midi Olimpique article and comments by Goze contained "ridiculous suggestions that would have us believe England and France are the only significant sources of income for the ERC." Lux cited attendances at semi-finals and finals which highlighted the commercial contribution of Irish supporters alone and hailing the Heineken Cup as the most competitive competition in the world, ventured that anyone who believes an Anglo-French competition would be as commercially attractive, "is naive at best".

Alas, one ventures that the words of Lux and co are falling on deaf ears, and perhaps were always destined to do so.