The bitter conflict over the future of European club rugby moved into a new and potentially decisive phase on Thursday night as England’s top-flight teams were left wondering whether their grand alliance with the leading French clubs was still functioning – or whether it had collapsed in the face of pressure applied by powerful establishment figures on the far side of the Channel.
Twelve of the 14 elite teams in France, together with seven sides from the second-tier Pro 2 division, met at a hotel near Orly Airport on the outskirts of Paris on Thursday to discuss their next move in the long-running row over how next season’s cross-border campaign would be organised. They had two choices: to continue with plans to quit the Heineken Cup and set up a rival tournament, the Rugby Champions Cup, with their English brethren; or to shelve their boycott plans and recommit themselves to the existing, if heavily revamped, competition.
Despite fierce objections from several of the biggest French clubs – thought to include the four-time European champions Toulouse and the two Parisian teams, Racing Metro and Stade Français – the vote went the way of the status quo, albeit with a twist. Paul Goze, the chairman of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and the spokesman for the clubs during this damaging boardroom scrap, was reported as saying that the French contingent would remain in the Heineken Cup for one more “transitional year”, provided the English clubs could be persuaded to join them and on the condition that the current organising body was disbanded by the end of the 2014-15 season.
Quite where this left the argument, none of the key players was remotely sure. “I’m trying to get more detail on exactly what was agreed,” said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, the English clubs’ umbrella organisation, and a central figure in the move towards setting up a breakaway tournament. “My reading on the face of it is that the French now want new structures in place for 2015-16 rather than 2014-15 and are willing to stay where they are during the year of transition, but we need to understand what is meant by ‘transition’.
“What does this mean for the Rugby Champions Cup? It’s difficult to say at this stage. We know that the organisers of the existing tournament have agreed to implement improvements to the competition format we demanded at the start of this process, and that they have also accepted the need for a fairer division of monies. We also know, because they said so last week, that they are looking at improving the governance structure. If all that comes together, it could be that the new competition we are proposing will effectively be in place at the end of next season.
“As things stand at the moment, I can’t see how the English clubs will be involved in the Heineken Cup in 2014-15. But this issue is working its way down a long and winding road and there are likely to be more twists and turns before we reach its end.”
Long-time observers of the club game in France will not be wholly surprised by yesterday’s events. The regulatory structures under which the government, the national Olympic association and the governing bodies of the major sports coalesce make it extremely difficult for clubs to act unilaterally and the Top 14 teams’ united front began to splinter when the French establishment started throwing its weight around. Pierre Camou, the president of the Federation Française de Rugby, was said on Thursday night to have used “the full court press” to force the clubs into a climbdown.
While the Premiership contingent were putting a brave face on things, there was little doubt that the news emerging from yesterday’s meeting, confused and contradictory as it may have been, was far from welcome. Together with the French clubs, they served notice of their intention to quit the Heineken Cup more than 18 months ago and have repeatedly stated their intention to make good on that decision. They have also declared that all future European matches involving English teams will be broadcast by BT Sport, their new television partners.
That broadcasting deal remains the biggest single obstacle in the search for an agreement that will safeguard the future of a European campaign featuring teams from all the major northern hemisphere nations. The Heineken Cup administrators agreed a contract extension with Sky Sports in the summer of last year, much to the annoyance of the English clubs, and are in no mind to renege on it.
The poverty-stricken regional teams in Wales – Cardiff Blues, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – were left in no-man’s-land as a result of yesterday’s developments. They pledged their support for the Rugby Champions Cup, a tournament that may well turn out to be a dead duck.