No mood for compromise at split Heineken launch

Neither side prepared to give ground in TV row that threatens to sink competition

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.”

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
peopleReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
peopleThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker