They are still many miles apart, the rival factions of European rugby who have spent the last six months fighting a Heineken Cup turf war that may destroy the world’s most popular club tournament – a competition so seductive that it lures All Blacks away from New Zealand, draws fit and functioning Wallabies from Australia and persuades big-name Springboks to put their South African Test careers on hold. Two proposed revamps have been rejected, there is a bitter battle over broadcasting rights still to be fought and there is no date in the diary for a resumption of talks. God rest ye merry, gentlemen.
When long-standing members of rugby’s governing class remind us that we have been here before, they are quite right: in 1998, a few months after Bath had become the first English side to win the title by staging a famous rearguard action against the reigning champions Brive in Bordeaux, the Premiership teams confirmed that they would boycott the tournament after a nasty outbreak of boardroom politics and were joined by Cardiff and Swansea, the two biggest clubs in Wales. Where they are wrong is in drawing a direct comparison between what happened then and what is happening now.
“We’ve played the tournament without the English before, and we can do it again,” said one very senior figure in Celtic rugby this week, a man closely involved with the running of the Pro12 league that provides bread-and-butter competition for the Irish provinces, the Welsh regions, the big-city Scottish teams and the Italian professional franchises. Such talk can be heard in presidents’ bars from Belfast to Llanelli via Glasgow and Edinburgh, and in all probability in Parma and Treviso too. But this latest threat to the competition – by this time next year, it could be in its death throes – is incalculably more serious because the French have joined the eternally dissatisfied English in serving notice to quit after the 2014 final. In ’99, the likes of Toulouse and Stade Français were present and correct. In less than 18 months, they could be preparing to play elsewhere.
Not even Jean-Pierre Lux, the fine French centre of old and an optimist of the eternal variety, could find a positive note to strike following the European Rugby Cup meeting in London on Wednesday – a meeting that ended, as every other meeting has ended, in stalemate. “It is extremely disappointing for all involved that we have not yet made sufficient progress towards a new accord,” said the ERC chairman. “Each nation must now reflect on the best way forward for European rugby as a whole.”
The English and French, exasperated by the ease with which the leading Pro12 sides qualify for the Heineken Cup through the relative luxury of a relegation-free league that gives them the freedom to prioritise big European matches, want a leaner 20-team format rather than the current 24-strong competition and an end to guaranteed places for each Celtic nation and Italy, thereby forcing them to fight among themselves for qualification, as they fight among themselves in their own domestic tournaments. Only the top six Pro12 finishers would make the cut, and if that turns out to be three Irish sides and three Welsh, the Scots and the Azzurri can go hang. Unsurprisingly, support for this proposal has been some way short of unanimous.
In response, the Celts and Italians suggested an expansion to 32 rather than a contraction to 20 – an idea as daft as it was self-serving, and one roundly rejected by the Anglo-French axis. The Heineken Cup is meant to be an elite competition, not an open house for any Tom, Dick or Harry. If American sport is sometimes described as “socialism for rich people”, this would be communism for argumentative people.
So what is to be done? There is one radical alternative that might give both sides something of what they want – on the one hand, guaranteed access for all six participating nations; on the other, a tougher qualifying regime for the Pro12 brigade that would force them to suffer as the English and French suffer – while maximising the tournament’s broadcasting profile and making it even more attractive to the paying public at the turnstile. It has not been presented at any ERC meeting, for the very good reason that this newspaper does not have a seat at the table. It has, however, generated interest among some of those involved in the negotiations.
Under this plan, which sticks to the existing 24-team format, each nation would give up one guaranteed place, leaving England and France with five apiece, Ireland and Wales with two, and both Scotland and Italy with one, all decided on merit by league placings at the end of a season. The risk of sending the fragile Scottish and Italian rugby markets into a death spiral by depriving them of Heineken Cup status – something which would inevitably weaken the Six Nations and have serious knock-on consequences for the international game as a whole – would therefore be avoided.
With 16 automatic qualifiers, the eight remaining places would be decided by a single, winner-take-all qualifying round held across one weekend – a Friday/Saturday/Sunday bonanza so cherished by the wall-to-wall television fraternity. Who would compete? The half-dozen remaining Pro 12 teams, together with the English Premiership and French Top 14 teams who finished between sixth and 10th in their respective leagues. (Those finishing still lower would play in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, along with the losers of the Heineken knock-out games and sides drawn from the Italian club game and developing rugby nations elsewhere on the continent).
The beauties of this solution are many and varied. The Pro12 would become significantly more competitive, for every team would be made to sweat rivers over European qualification. At present, the Irish “big three” of Leinster, Munster and Ulster need only to roll out of bed to make the Heineken Cup cut. If only two of them were guaranteed entry, there would be all manner of fun and games. The same would go for the Welsh and the Scots, while Treviso might soon find themselves under pressure from the new, currently overmatched Italian franchise of Zebre if only one, rather than both, could be sure of a place.
Also, the chances of having the form teams in the elite competition would be enhanced. Last season, Sale pinched the last English qualifying place ahead of a group of rivals including Gloucester, who happen to be playing some of the most exciting rugby in the country this time round while the Salford-based club cannot beat an egg, let alone French opponents as strong as Toulon. Under this system, some of Europe’s finest – Freddie Burns and James Simpson-Daniel at Gloucester, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau at Newport-Gwent Dragons, James Hook (pictured below left) and Nicolas Mas at Perpignan, Sergio Parisse and Pascal Papé at Stade Français – would have had an 80-minute tilt at righting the wrongs of the previous league campaign.
And the public would love it – which really should be the main thing in professional sport, but in reality is anything but. The qualifying fixtures would be decided by a straightforward, gloriously old-fashioned blind draw: had the system been in place for this season’s competition, Bath could as easily have found themselves fighting out a one-off derby with Gloucester at the Recreation Ground as facing Connacht in the wilds of Galway or Agen in the rugby badlands of southern France.
Timing might be a sensitive issue, but a sudden-death weekend in mid- September would not upset the fixture planners’ applecart to any great degree. As for the principle that the Heineken Cup victors should be allowed the chance to defend their title, and that the Amlin Challenge Cup winners should join them in the draw for the elite competition... no problem. They would simply take one of their country’s guaranteed slots, as they do now. The teams missing out as a consequence would at least have a shot at making it through the qualifiers.
This is not an idea that addresses the impending scrap between BSkyB and BT Vision for broadcasting rights, and it does not seek to solve the poisonous issues over tournament governance that are bubbling away like a witches’ brew. It does, however, offer a workable format that would make a revered, menacingly endangered tournament even more exciting than it is now – and more politically sustainable into the bargain. Most of all, it would keep the thing alive. And generally speaking, life is better than the alternative.
Refreshing The Heineken
How it works now:
Who qualifies? 24 teams made up of:
* Top 6 in England
* Top 6 in France
* Top 3 Irish teams in Celtic League
* Top 3 Welsh teams in Celtic League
* Top 2 Italian teams in Celtic League
* Top 2 Scottish teams in Celtic League
* Heineken Cup winners
* Amlin Challenge Cup winners (if the tournaments are won by teams from the same nation, the Amlin Cup winner is not allowed to qualify so the place is determined by European rankings).
* Teams are drawn in 6 pools of 4 according to ranking, with those from the same nation separated as far as possible. Group winners qualify for the quarter-finals, with the last two places going to the best runners-up.
* The next 3 best runners-up drop into quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup.
Hewett’s Master plan
Who qualifies? 24 teams made up of:
* Top 5 in England
* Top 5 in France
* Top 2 Irish teams in Celtic League
* Top 2 Welsh teams in Celtic League
* Top Italian team in Celtic League
* Top Scottish team in Celtic League
(Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup winners must enter so would take one of their nations’ places).
* The 5 best non-qualifiers from both England and 5 best from France, along with the 6 remaining Celtic and Italian teams, enter a one-off round of knockout matches to fill the last 8 Heineken places. Held in September, pairings and home advantage are decided by a blind draw.
* Losers enter Challenge Cup, organised under existing format to include teams from “developing” nations.