Two-nation rival drives Heineken Cup to brink of extinction

Celtic clubs face being left in lurch if English and French go it alone

The Heineken Cup, one of professional rugby's biggest success stories, was driven closer to oblivion when the leading clubs in England and France announced that planning was under way for a rival two-nation tournament to be launched next season. In a fierce declaration of intent, they gave provincial and regional teams in the other major European nations – Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy – a maximum of six weeks to join them in their new venture.

"We made it clear more than a year ago that we would withdraw from the Heineken Cup as it is currently constituted at the end of this season," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, the organisation representing the interests of England's top-flight clubs. "The last all-stakeholder meeting on reform of the tournament was back at the end of May. Here we are, almost in mid-September, with the domestic competitions in England and France up and running, and no clarity as to what is happening in terms of European competition.

"What's the definition of madness? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. We've been talking for 12 months now and we've gone round in circles. There comes a point when you feel there's nothing there to negotiate. We've put forward positive proposals to the other interested parties, but there has been no movement. Now we need to crack on and put something in place for the 2014-15 season."

Together with the French, the other major financial drivers in the European club game, the English clubs have long been dissatisfied with the structure of the Heineken Cup, arguing that the qualification process is loaded against them and complaining of weak performance in both the commercial and governance spheres. They have pushed hard for a revamping of the tournament, cutting the number of teams from 24 to 20 and demanding equality of opportunity in the qualification process, with the top six teams from the Premiership, the French Top 14 league and the Celtic-Italian Pro 12 competition making the cut as of right.

Unsurprisingly, the Celts have resisted a move that would make life significantly more challenging for their major teams. The assumption in Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff has been that by playing the long game in negotiations, they would wear down the English and French and successfully defend the status quo, or at least end up with something looking very much like it. That approach was left dead in the water by today's simultaneous statements from Premier Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby.

"I think people saw our serving notice of withdrawal last year as a bargaining tool," McCafferty said. "It wasn't anything of the sort. We were always willing to work hard to achieve some progress, but that has not been possible and now we find ourselves in a position where our clubs need to start making proper plans for next season. They need clarity and certainty because financial planning has to be done on a three or four-year basis."

While McCafferty admitted that the French clubs would find it more difficult than their English counterparts to declare a rugby version of UDI from European competition – "There is no doubt that they operate in a more complicated regulatory environment," he said – the CEO was in no doubt that such powerful Top 14 teams as Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and the major Parisian sides Stade Français and Racing Métro would be strong enough to stand with their Premiership brethren in the face of any strong-arm tactics from the respective governing bodies, which will come under intense pressure from the International Rugby Board to break the impasse and save the Heineken Cup from dissolution.

"This wasn't a sudden agreement between England and France," McCafferty said. "We spent a year preparing the ground for this. We didn't just draw up our plans on the back of an envelope."

A new Anglo-French competition would enable the Premiership clubs to deliver on their pledge that all European matches in which they are involved after the end of this season will be screened on BT Sport, their new broadcasting partner. The four-year deal signed last year gives the clubs £152m, around a third of which is thought to have been earmarked for cross-border competition.

Assuming they go ahead with their breakaway, BT Sport's feverish fight with Sky Sports will move to another level. On the same day that Premier Rugby announced their new deal, the organisers of the Heineken Cup confirmed an extension of their broadcasting deal with Sky. Quite whether Rupert Murdoch's organisation would be interested in a "European" tournament shorn of the two countries offering the biggest audiences is open to debate.

According to McCafferty, the new tournament will fill the nine weeks currently occupied by the Heineken Cup and its so-called "little brother", the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup. "We won't know exactly what shape it will take until we have a decision from the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian teams on whether they wish to be a part of it," the CEO said. "We'll need answers from them between four and six weeks from now. For our part, the planning process is now under way."

Today, the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, which administers the Heineken and Amlin tournaments, is scheduled to meet in Dublin, where Peter Wheeler of Leicester will represent the Premiership clubs. McCafferty's remark that "this is no longer really an ERC issue" will not improve tempers around the table. However, that comment was loaded with significance. It is clear now that the English and French clubs believe the discussions to have reached a dead end.

Meanwhile, the hard-pressed ERC organisation released a slightly weary statement of its own. "While there is a shared sense of frustration among ERC's stakeholders at the lack of progress towards a new accord, the meeting in Dublin will provide an opportunity for the parties to review the consultation process to date," said a spokesman.

As far as the Anglo-French axis is concerned, the time for "reviewing the consultation process" has long gone. They believe that there is nothing to review... and very little left to say.

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past