European rugby's stakeholders ride into Rome tomorrow to debate the future of the Heineken Cup, with English clubs admitting they have been considering the Armageddon alternative of a rival competition with their French counterparts should they fail to secure a revamp of the existing competition.
A link-up with South Africa after 2014 has also been considered as pressure grows for wholesale change, with two apparently conflicting tele-vision deals on the table and the English clubs sticking to a tough negotiating position in defence of theirs with BT Vision. It may just be another jaw-jaw junket, leading to an inevitable making-up, perhaps next May when Dublin hosts the Heineken final, with Leinster as the bookmakers' favourites to be there as three-in-a-row champions.
When the Heineken Cup's organising company, European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC) staged their season's launches in the past few days, their Irish chief executive, Derek McGrath, pooh-poohed the status of BT Vision, the new kids on the broadcasting block. England's clubs, through Premiership Rugby (PRL), have signed a unilateral deal with BT Vision from next season that includes European matches in the UK for three years after 2014, when the current ERC accord ends. Evoking the ghosts of failed TV companies ITV Digital and Setanta and "the lack of success that ESPN has had with its football package", McGrath insisted ERC would stick to their four-year contract extension with Sky to 2018 – as of course he had to.
The Premiership's chairman, Quentin Smith – a corporate mediator by trade – is publicly conciliatory, insisting there would be enough BT money to improve every-one's commercial position in return for a restructuring of revenues and automatic qualifying places among the 38 clubs of the Premiership, French Top 14 and Celtic-Italian Pro 12. For ERC to acquiesce would require the six national unions among their nine stakeholders (the others are the clubs' organisations in England, France and Wales) to trash a treasured principle of collective bargaining. Nevertheless they are open to PRL presenting them the detail of the BT deal.
"There's no reason to stop these discussions moving very quickly," Smith said. "We are not rewriting a rulebook here." PRL want their proposed restructuring of the Heineken to 20 teams with two competitions underneath to be agreed first, but Smith said of BT: "We would never do a deal and we have not done a deal that would not inure to the benefit of everyone. Because we would just look like chumps. A lot of the assumptions are that this is all about the PRL clubs feathering our nests to the disadvantage of others, which is just absolute rubbish."
It is understood the Irish are ready to cut automatic Scottish and Italian qualification in the Heineken Cup to one team each, and move the knockout stages forward from April and May to suit a French wish to leave the end of their domestic season clear. The elephant in the room is what the English clubs' Plan B is. Smith dismissed as "a complete lie" a recent report that a PRL delegation had spent three weeks in South Africa pursuing different options. But it is well known the South African Union and provinces are unhappy with their lot in Sanzar. Martyn Thomas, the former RFU chairman, recalled a meeting in Dublin two years ago at which the SA Union's president, Oregan Hoskins, asked how South African teams might play in the Premiership or in Europe.
Generally speaking PRL have been open and unapologetic in conducting talks with every major rugby nation. "Mark [McCafferty] and I were in New Zealand last year," said Smith. "We were working. We weren't secretive. We had proper meetings with chairmen and chief executives and we met everyone: Argentinians, Sanzar, Americans, Russians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Australians, Scots, Welsh.'' He said "thought had been given" to an Anglo-French competition but "only in the event that some sort of renegotiation Armageddon happens and everyone else goes off and leaves us out of it."
Saracens' chairman, Nigel Wray, for one, believes it is "inevitable" South African sides will one day play alongside teams in Europe. "At the end of the day, TV calls the shots," Wray said. "Showing matches at breakfast time or midnight doesn't make sense." Regarding ERC he said: "The existing structure has to change. English and French clubs are constantly outvoted yet supply the vast majority of the revenue. The English and French have to smash themselves to bits to get in while the other guys [in the Pro 12] can rest their guys and stroll in. It's not right."
This view undoubtedly rankles with the Irish, who argue that because the English system that includes relegation from the Premiership is different, it doesn't make it right. They point out the Heineken Cup was established to support national teams (there again, the English say their model would do that better). Peter Boyle, one of the two Irish RFU representatives on ERC, railed when it was put to him Brian O'Driscoll had played only three away matches outside Ireland for Leinster in the Pro 12. "Brian O'Driscoll has played against Treviso and Edinburgh this season," said Boyle. "If he gets a knock of course we look after him. That's just a facile argument. Look at Toulouse and you'll find their top players don't play many games." Sar-acens, it might be noted, are resting three England players, Brad Barritt, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton, from their Premiership match today.
Drilling down into the financials is not easy. Of the two deals announced last month, it is reckoned that ERC's with Sky in the UK and Ireland from 2014 would be worth around £72 million. PRL are silent on how much of the "up to £152m" promised by BT – for four years' Premiership and Sevens rights from 2013, and three years of Europe in the UK from 2014 – would go into the European pot, or who would get what. A best estimate is that the current Sky-ESPN deal for Aviva Premiership games is worth £60m. PRL have said the BT deal will raise that by 50 per cent, which makes the European part around £62m.
Thomas reminded the English clubs they are bound to ERC until 2016 unless they breach their agreement with the Rugby Football Union. The biggest picture according to Wray is the clubs losing millions collectively. "There isn't a European tournament without the English clubs," said Wray. "What we don't want out of this is a fudge."
At the same time he has been around long enough to remember the unions setting up the Heineken Cup in 1995 – a cup that continued without the English in 1995-96 and 1998-99.
Heineken Cup pool by pool
Racing Métro 66-1
Edinburgh, last season's semi- finalists, are worth a punt if you fancy Tim Visser's tries, but on Friday they lost at home to Treviso. Saracens, England's sole quarter-finalists last year, host Racing in, er, Brussels — bit of a gamble.
Leicester Tigers 14-1
Leicester are desperate to improve on two losing finals since 2002. Treviso have won three Pro 12 matches. Toulouse have failed only once in 10 years to get through the pool. Ospreys, post Shane Williams, look to centre Ashley Beck.
Harlequins had trouble with Connacht last season. England would like their champions to ease through, but Biarritz never roll over. Zebre, four months old but automatic entrants, rile the English.
Northampton Saints 20-1
Castres only squeaked past a weakened Clermont 16-13 on Friday. The 2012 Heineken runners-up Ulster's battles with Northampton will be monumental.
Clermont Auvergne 8-1
Exeter Chiefs 500-1
Leinster 7-2 fav
Very tough start for the Scarlets at Clermont; the French side were one fumble away from knocking Leinster out last year. Exeter? Hmm. Taking a scalp would be great.
Cardiff Blues 66-1
Sale Sharks 200-1
Cardiff have lost prop Gethin Jenkins and may struggle. France fly-half François Trinh-Duc guides Montpellier. Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson says his lot don't prioritise, but expect to win every match.