There was a good deal of sound and no little fury in Cardiff on Monday as the cream of Anglo-Welsh rugby gathered for the formal launch of the 19th Heineken Cup, but it signified next to nothing. The two sides in the union code’s most serious dispute for 15 years – the European tournament establishment in the true blue corner, the English clubs in the revolutionary red corner – finished the day as far apart as ever, and there was no indication of the gap being closed in time to save the most captivating competition in the sport.
At one point during proceedings at the Millennium Stadium – a squirmingly uncomfortable affair, given the presence of half a dozen Premiership clubs who have made it abundantly clear that they will not participate in any 20th Heineken Cup – the chief executive of the current tournament organisers, Derek McGrath, took a swipe at the malcontents.
“We have stated many times that… we will find agreement only when we have the full engagement of all the parties around the table,” he said. “We haven’t had that yet. We haven’t had engagement and we haven’t had negotiation, which is critical to find progress. There is still time, but all parties bear a responsibility to find a solution, and walking away is not respecting the obligations to those not sitting at the table – the fans, the players, the sponsors – who have a significant interest in the future of the competitions.”
McGrath went on to challenge the “game’s institutions”, by which he meant the national unions under the umbrella of the International Rugby Board, to flex their regulatory muscles by preventing the English clubs and their fellow rebels in France from setting up a new cross-border competition under their own auspices. He also questioned the motives of the Premiership teams, accusing them of turning their backs on the tournament not because of issues over qualification and competitive structure, but because they want to “frustrate” the Heineken Cup’s recently extended broadcasting contract with Sky Sports – to see it fall as a consequence of ERC (the organising body) being wound down. “That is clearly not something the board of ERC is prepared to accept,” he added.
The Sky deal is at the heart of this hugely damaging argument. A little over a year ago, the Premiership clubs signed a £152m broadcasting contract of their own with BT Sport, awarding exclusive rights to domestic top-flight rugby and insisting that any future European games involving English teams would also be screened by the newcomer. News of the rival agreements was made public within hours of each other and neither side has given so much as a millimetre of ground since. McGrath insists he was properly mandated to conclude the Sky agreement; the English faction disagrees.
“Broadcasting is the single most important commercial arrangement to be made,” said one leading Premiership figure yesterday. “How could this Sky deal have been struck, four months after both the English and French clubs served notice of their intention to leave the current tournament and before any new accord had been signed? It beggars belief.”
Meanwhile, the potential fall-out for rugby in Wales was graphically illustrated by the former international lock Derwyn Jones, who now acts for Sam Warburton, the Cardiff Blues flanker and national captain who led the Lions in Australia during the summer. “Sam has told the Blues he wants to stay in Wales next season,” Jones said, “but the region isn’t able to offer him a contract at the moment because of the mess that exists in Europe.”
Aware that the other three regional sides in the principality – the Swansea-based Ospreys, the Llanelli-based Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons – have already lost leading players to big money on offer in England and France and will be at serious risk of losing a whole lot more if there is no European tournament next season, the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive, Roger Lewis, offered his services as an honest broker.
“We’re all in danger of losing the plot here and we have to focus on the principal point, which is that this is the greatest club rugby competition in the world and we must get the right people around the table at the right time to discuss the right things,” he said, adding that his union was willing to negotiate on new tournament structures and a fresh distribution of income. “There’s 19 years of history and legacy here and starting all over again is unnecessary.”
Which was all very helpful, until he added: “Our position is unequivocal: we have to honour our position with Sky.” As the English clubs are every bit as unequivocal in their position on the broadcasting front, there is no fertile ground for compromise.
Meanwhile, senior Premiership rugby directors – Conor O’Shea of Harlequins and Richard Cockerill of Leicester among them – were queuing up to voice their support for the English stance on this most prickly of sporting disputes. “It’s very important that all countries are represented in European competition, but it has to be on the right terms,” Cockerill said.
And if the Rugby Football Union decides to play hardball with the clubs and refuses to sanction their new tournament? “Players are contracted to their clubs,” he responded. “If, hypothetically, the union doesn’t support us and excludes every Premiership player from the England team, it will do very well to sell out Twickenham. The 2015 World Cup without any players? That’ll work well.”