TV saga takes gloss off the Heineken Cup
But will the outcome of the ongoing rights fight for Europe's top tournament, which kicks off tomorrow, lead to a healthier future?
If England's leading teams love European rugby as much as they claim to love it, what is it they hate about the Heineken Cup that makes them want to destroy it – or, at the very least, reduce the existing tournament to rubble and replace it with one much more to their liking? There are three reasons. They resent a governance structure with a built-in Celtic veto; they fume at the competition's continuing failure to punch its weight commercially; and they loathe the fact that they cannot win the bloody thing.
The first of these gripes is reasonable – it is the devil's own job to get things done in a boardroom which has, at its heart, the kind of block vote that might have made Arthur Scargill smile – and the second has even more going for it. The Premiership contingent argue that the Heineken Cup should generate more than its most recent annual turnover figure of £41.6m and together with the French, they believe they are being short-changed when it comes to the divvy-up. The two financial powerhouses of northern hemisphere rugby playing second fiddle to the Irish? That, they say, is a clear case of cart before horse.
What have the English done about it? Why, they've gone to the market in search of a fait accompli and found one: a £152m broadcasting deal with BT Vision, a third of which they are willing to put on the Heineken Cup table in return for significant changes to the way the tournament is governed from the end of next season, financed and played. If the French make a parallel offer – they are said to be discussing a similar deal with an offshoot of the fabulously wealthy Al Jazeera network – the competition will find itself in previously uncharted commercial territory. The fact that the current administrators have produced a fait accompli of their own in the shape of a contract extension with Sky Sports merely makes it more likely that the whole thing will end up in front of Mr Justice Cocklecarrot.
So far, so messy. But what of the rugby man and woman in the street? Are they really gripped by the bitchery and bastardy inside a boardroom that was wholly dysfunctional when the English first boycotted the tournament in 1998-99 and has barely witnessed a moment's sweetness and light since? Sure, they will be frustrated if they find themselves paying an extra tenner to watch the best European game of the weekend on this satellite platform rather than that one, or if they cannot be certain which TV remote to use in accessing the match they most want to see, but when all is said and done, the action is the thing. Will a change of format strengthen the competition, or diminish it?
Fed up with seeing the likes of Leinster and Munster, who between them have won five of the last seven titles, prioritise Heineken Cup rugby ahead of the gentle, relegation-free Pro 12 league, the Anglo-French agitators are demanding a "three sixes" arrangement they believe will enhance their prospects. They propose automatic qualification for the top half-dozen teams in the three bread-and-butter competitions, with additional places reserved for the winners of the two European trophies. In other words, they want an end to guaranteed places for all participating countries (except, of course, their own).
Had the system been in place for this season's tournament, which begins tomorrow night with intriguing games at Ulster and Ospreys, last season's semi-finalists, Edinburgh, would not have made the cut. Neither would either of the teams from Italy. Spool back another year, and it would have been a four-nation affair. No Scots to be seen, no Azzurri anywhere.
A new format along these lines would, as the English insist, be more meritocratic, but meritocracy is not always all it's cracked up to be: Sale have a Heineken Cup place despite being the worst side in the Premiership right now, but there is no sign of Gloucester, perhaps the most exciting side. It would also do away with the mechanism, mathematically challenging but undeniably effective, that allows two best-placed runners-up from the six groups access to the knockout phase. It takes a stroke of genius or a stroke of luck to come up with a system that more often than not keeps all 12 last-round fixtures alive. Either way, it has worked brilliantly.
Additionally, there is something profoundly short-sighted about squeezing the fragile rugby cultures in Scotland and Italy. The international game needs both to prosper – without them, the World Cup would become even more lopsided than it is – and in the fullness of time, the European club movement will benefit massively from the opening up of new markets in Rome, Milan and Turin.
It is not only men like Derek McGrath, the beleaguered chief executive of the current Heineken Cup administrative body, who makes these points: forward-thinking rugby folk as bright as Gregor Townsend, the Glasgow coach, and Mark Evans, the former Harlequins CEO who now runs a sports business consultancy and is a go-to man for policymakers in need of guidance on market growth, bang a similar drum. But it is McGrath who is in the front line.
"There is too much at stake now for these discussions to be easy," the Irishman admitted a few days ago, speaking of the series of Heineken Cup summit meetings between delegates from the competing countries. "We know why the English clubs are playing the game they've playing: they're struggling with their salary cap and struggling with tournament prioritisation. It's about the crown jewels, isn't it? It's about people saying, 'Don't mess with our stuff'. But, in my view, this competition is owned by many more people than those sitting around the boardroom table."
McGrath is right about that much, but the vast majority of "owners" do not count. Money will talk in the end, as it always does. Once it has had its say, what kind of Heineken Cup will it have left us?
Broadcaster's vision ups the ante
The managing director of Sky Sports, Barney Francis, admits BT Vision is a sports broadcaster which cannot be ignored after it sealed its £152m deal with the Premiership which could change the face of rugby.
Sky had seen off previous rivals, but Francis said: "We are taking them very seriously. BT are following in a long line but are a different competitor."
Pool 1: Edinburgh, Munster, Racing Metro, Saracens
The pessimists expect nothing more entrancing than a study in rugby claustrophobia – a series of dark-hued, close-quarter contests illuminated only by the odd interjection from the adventurous Edinburgh playmaker Greig Laidlaw. The optimists will relish the prospect of being shaken and stirred by some ultra-fierce, tourniquet-tight contests. Munster are not the irresistible force of old; Racing Metro have yet to land a solid punch in Europe, for all their naked ambition; Saracens are going through one of their "nobody likes us and we don't care" phases. But Laidlaw is not the only magician in the mix. Any pool presenting Chris Ashton, Keith Earls and Juan Martin Hernandez as top-of-the-bill acts has something going for it.
And the winner is… Saracens
Pool 2: Leicester, Ospreys, Toulouse, Treviso
First things first: Treviso will expect to win a game at home. They generally do – one of the Heineken Cup's many myths is that Italian teams always lose, and that the pools in which they appear always produce two quarter-finalists. Ospreys are a class act if Dan Biggar has his playmaking radar properly configured and Justin Tipuric continues to look like the best breakaway in Wales, but they have already lost in Treviso this season. Leicester? They have major assets in Dan Cole and Ben Youngs, but there is a whiff of vulnerability about them. Toulouse? The grandest club in Europe have a wonderful new centre in Gaël Fickou, but they are prone to the odd funny five minutes.
And the winner is… Toulouse
Pool 3: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre
From the bottom circle of hell to the land of milk-and-honey: the kind of pool that makes the English contingent threaten to quit the tournament unless it becomes more meritocratic, although Quins are quite content for the moment, thanks for asking. They should win this going away: Zebre, the new Italian franchise, would struggle to beat an egg while Connacht remain the weakest of the Irish provinces. (If they did for the Londoners on a wild night in Galway last season, it is far-fetched to imagine them doing it again). As Biarritz disappear off the face of the earth when Dimitri Yachvili is not playing – the world's best scrum-half has been injured for weeks – Quins can see clear road ahead.
And the winner is… Harlequins
Pool 4: Castres, Glasgow, Northampton, Ulster
There is far more of Pool 2 than Pool 3 about this meeting of mind and muscle; it could turn out to be the tightest group of the lot. Ulster are unbeaten after five rounds of Pro12 rugby: grief-stricken as they are by last month's death of their centre Nevin Spence, last season's beaten finalists believe they can best honour his memory by winning these matches. Dylan Hartley's injury is a worry for Northampton – the captain means as much to them as Yachvili means to Biarritz – but they can beat anyone at full strength. Glasgow? Unfashionable but dangerous. Castres? Ditto, especially with the dead-eyed Romain Teulet kicking goals for fun.
And the winner is… Ulster
Pool 5: Clermont Auvergne, Exeter, Leinster, Scarlets
It doesn't get any easier. When Rob Baxter, the coach of newcomers Exeter, said he wanted to go straight to the heart of the competition by being drawn in a high-quality group, he should have been a little more careful in articulating his wish. This pool has it all: a genuinely great side in Leinster, who are chasing an unprecedented third successive title; a side with pretensions to greatness and the capacity to achieve it in Clermont Auvergne; a brilliant attacking outfit in Scarlets, whose back division somehow manages to combine old-world romance with cutting-edge modernism; and Exeter, everyone's favourite party-crashers. If the Leinster-Clermont games go zero-sum, the other contenders will come into play – which is where the fun begins.
And the winner is… Leinster
Pool 6: Cardiff Blues, Montpellier, Sale, Toulon
When the draw was made, this group looked more than handy. Since when, Sale have spent a month and a half bottoming themselves out at the foot of the Premiership table and the Blues have gone all grey on us, as is their wont. It is barely possible to see past Toulon as winners of this round-robin contest: any side who can choose between Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Frédéric Michalak at outside-half – or, if they like, play all three together at 9, 10 and 12 – might be expected to chisel out the odd victory, every now and again. Montpellier are the interesting ones. They have a high-class coaching team, some seriously good players and are on a good run domestically.
And the winner is… Toulon
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