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.
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