Heineken Cup Final: Rights battle threatens to speed up European demise

Elite competition faces extinction unless rival unions can agree on reforms in next year

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The Independent Online

This evening Dublin will go Gallic for the final of the Heineken Cup. A French flavour is guaranteed for next year’s final too and it offers an appropriate full stop that the country will host what may prove the competition’s grand finale 18 years after Toulouse lifted the first trophy.

With every failed meeting and month that passes it becomes increasingly likely that next season’s Heineken Cup will be the last, certainly in its current format. It is nearly a year since English and French clubs gave their two-year notice; as of the full-time whistle of the 2014 final they will no longer be part of the European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC), the body that runs the Heineken and Amlin Cups.

There is no sign of an imminent entente cordiale between the parties, which is no surprise given the myriad of interested ones from the Home Unions to Premiership Rugby to the Ligue de Nationale de Rugby to the Italian and French Unions, to the ERC and the money men, Sky Sports and newcomers BT Vision, both of whom lay claim to broadcasting European rugby’s future.

Since a Thomas Castaignede-inspired Toulouse beat Cardiff in that first final in the Arms Park, the tournament has grown into club rugby’s signature event. Just under 22,000 were there in 1996; last year just under 82,000 were at Twickenham to see an all-Irish final. But as it has grown, so have the big two’s discontent with its structure and rewards.

The English and French clubs want reform or, they insist, they are gone. It is a split that English club rugby, buoyed by its £152m deal with BT, is prepared to buy. The French Top 14 too could survive the short-term financial loss of European competition. The rest would be damaged, the Irish least so the already struggling Welsh, Scots and Italians horribly. That is the worst-case scenario; the 2014-15 season will have no European competition.

English clubs have started planning for that eventuality with an expansion of the Premiership from 12 to 14 mooted along with a similarly expanded Anglo-Welsh competition. It is BT’s arrival that leaves Premiership Rugby in a position of strength. The money the clubs receive as part of the new domestic deal, which begins next season, at least matches what they currently receive for domestic and European duties.

BT is confident it will be the sole UK broadcaster of whatever European competition there is from 2014 onwards. ERC responded to BT’s English deal by agreeing a new one with Sky that runs until 2018. Both cannot come to air and Premiership Rugby insists TV is a non-negotiable part of the deal; BT or bust. It believes the notice served by French and English clubs on 1 June last year meant that ERC was in no position to agree a new deal with Sky last autumn.

There is deep dissatisfaction in Premiership Rugby, and in France, over the competition’s structure, although there have already been compromises in their demands which could be read as a sign there is recognition of the shortening timescale.

“All parties involved confirmed they seek resolution as soon as possible,” said a spokesperson for ERC yesterday. “While it has been several months since the last all stakeholder meeting, there have been numerous meetings between representatives over the past number of weeks.”

Premiership Rugby wants the Heineken Cup cut from 24 teams to 20, the Amlin Cup strengthened and a third-tier European competition introduced. It has scaled down its demands over qualification, now suggesting six qualifiers from the Pro12, the top four plus two based on nationality to ensure every country has one participant. That has not been well received by other stakeholders.

The Anglo-French also want a recalculating of the revenue. As it stands the Pro12 clubs share 52 per cent, while the English and French each take 24 per cent. The English and French want a straight three-way split. And if they do not get it, there is the growing prospect that European rugby will be split apart.