David Flatman: Budgetary dispute means Eurosceptics will win the day
An English club are now very unlikely to win the Heineken Cup
Sunday 04 November 2012
One gets the feeling the outside world doesn't realise how drastically European rugby might change in the next few years. Yes, there are some negotiations going on in stuffy rooms in Dublin and yes, sometimes these blazered types make a right old fuss about very little at all. And, as we all know, this particular battle recommences every few years and invariably those voicing their complaints the loudest get a few more quid.
The age-old gripes over the resting of players in the Rabo Direct Pro12 and the absence of relegation aren't likely to disappear. They are, though, just the physical encapsulation of a fundamental flaw that has always been there.
To pit centrally-funded provinces against independently financed clubs was always a bit odd. We assumed that the relentlessness of the French and English leagues would make their teams so formidable that the Irish, Scottish and Welsh would not live with them. Not any more. Evolution dictates that the weaker teams will either drop away or catch up, and the Irish teams in particular have thrived. Instead of being disadvantaged they now dominate the Heineken Cup.
How funny, then, that the domestic brutality the French and English once regarded as an asset has now become a thorn in their respective sides. These clubs are, of course, commercial entities that require money to survive. Every effort must be made to win every week to qualify for the Big Dance: failure to do so, and a few weeks off, means drifting (further) into the red.
At Aviva Premiership clubs we sit and fret over ticket sales, praying that the team win not just for our own sakes but because we desperately need the revenue. I am sure the Rabo teams want the same, but the fact is that wealthy unions provide a safety net of sorts which offers a systematic advantage to one section of a competition. Equally, the French sides seem to have euros spilling from their cauliflower ears, and this we must not ignore.
Such a clash of ideologies will probably never be reconciled, but English and French club owners see simple ways to make this competition adhere to some cogent sporting and commercial principles.
Reducing the number of teams in the first-string European Cup will serve to make every game bigger. This means more spectators and bigger TV audiences. Forcing every team to earn their place will change the face of the competition by making it a true "best of the best" tournament. At the moment, it just isn't. This in turn will make the Rabo more competitive and therefore more commercially attractive, and level up the playing field. The French will still have tons of money and at some point that might need addressing, too.
I suppose my defence of the English side of the debate makes me a biased old hound, but I truly feel balanced about it all. Remember, I have played in these games and, from a purely physical point of view, it sometimes felt like running a 100-metre race after competing in a boxing match. Admittedly, opponents were often more skilful and athletic, but that was hardly the whole story.
Commercially, the French and English clubs generate by far the most money from the TV rights contracts and should be better rewarded. In the interests of fairness, there should be a three-way split of funds for the English, French and Celtic leagues. The cake will be bigger, everyone's slice will be equal, but nobody will be guaranteed a feed.
The Celtic unions, I am sure, feel very content with their current position, and why wouldn't they? Things are going swimmingly. As I see it, and this is totally subjective, an English club – probably more than a French one because of their wage bills – will now be very unlikely to win the Heineken Cup.
Under the proposed new system built around meritocracy and simple sporting elitism, every team will struggle, but isn't that the point? There are always money and politics to consider but, ultimately, a few tweaks here and a few ruffled collars there might well make the northern hemisphere's biggest rugby competition a proper sporting contest.
Forget all the other stuff; if that bit is right, the rest will surely follow.
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