A distinguished old Lion, Tony O'Reilly, yesterday added his powerful voice to the great rugby union debate. On the eve of the Home Unions summit meeting in Cardiff, O'Reilly, who went on two tours with the British Isles in the 1950s and won 29 caps for Ireland, appealed for common sense and unity among England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
"This is a very important meeting," O'Reilly said. "World rugby should not be dominated by any one media company, be it the BBC, ITV, NBC, CNN, and certainly not by BSkyB. The notion of rugby football becoming, in a sense, user-friendly, as dictated by the media or entertainment managers of a media company, whatever media company, is like tampering with the rules of golf, or the rules of soccer."
O'Reilly is the chairman and chief executive of the American company HJ Heinz and is also chairman of the Independent Newspaper Group, which owns a 46.5 per cent stake in this newspaper.
His Lions experiences have convinced him of the value of unity at all costs among the British Isles and Ireland. "Australia, South Africa and New Zealand want to play the British Isles far more than they want to play the individual countries," he said. "The four home nations have always been together and, having played on two tours to South Africa and then Australia and New Zealand, I feel qualified to talk about this.
"The negotiating bodies for any TV contract can only be appointed by the four home unions or their professional appointees. No single union has the right to go off and sign.
"Club rugby is different and, having played for Leicester for many years, I know a lot about it from that point of view. If the Baths, Bristols, Cardiffs and Swanseas wish to negotiate their best terms with any TV companies then that's their business. But the Five Nations tournament is sacrosanct.
"The four home unions and not any individual union should negotiate with all the media companies and get the best deal - and that may well be with BSkyB - for all the game and that includes the players and the spectators."
O'Reilly, who is now 60, painted a bleak picture for rugby in the northern hemisphere. He is one of the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team and said the unions should emulate American football. "There the franchise holders put all the money into one pot. That is then divided equally among the 30 teams."
O'Reilly said the game's governing body then puts a cap on the amount of money that each club can use to pay players and he is convinced a similar scheme would work well in the new era of professional rugby union.
"It would mean each club would have, say, pounds 1m for wages, they either pay one man the whole lot or perhaps 20 men pounds 50,000 each," he said. "And with a system like that you would get an automatic cap on the number of players at any one club because of the limitation on how much they should be paid."
He made a final appeal to the four Home Unions. "Negotiate as one, the Five Nations. Let the clubs negotiate for themselves." And he advised them: "Accept less today for a more orderly tomorrow."
If O'Reilly's advice is followed it could result in a much reduced offer from BSkyB but would certainly rekindle the interest of the terrestrial broadcasting companies and fulfil the wishes of the Welsh, Irish and Scots, who had been vehemently opposed to Sky's perceived monopoly on live broadcasts.
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