Painful posturing overshadows euro launch
September 30, 2013
Will the Heineken Cup be survive beyond this season? © Getty Images
Heineken Cup launches have traditionally been glitzy affairs with everyone eulogising about the wonderful treat in store but today's celebrations will have a huge cloud hanging over them. This - the 19th season of a great competition, loved by every rugby fan around Europe - could be the last unless the warring factions can stop posturing and get down to some serious talks about restructuring the tournament.
The stance of ERC appears to be that the English and French clubs are just being greedy, getting too big for their boots and should be forced back into line. They totally underestimated how serious the clubs were and thought they could bludgeon them into submission, refusing even to discuss their grievances for more than a year. That was a bad mistake so now, reluctantly, they have put forward the idea of an independent arbiter (appointed by them without consulting PRL or LNR) overseeing a meeting in late October.
With the backing of all the European national governing bodies apart from the RFU and with supportive noises coming from the International Rugby Board they are still trying to argue that any sort of breakaway is illegal instead of discussing the very real grievances, further muddying the waters by accusing the English and French of abandoning their weaker cousins and endangering the whole structure of professional rugby in Europe.
The biggest scandal is the failure on the part of ERC to engage in constructive dialogue over the past 12 months. I sat on the Board of PRL last year and can confirm that they did indeed follow protocol and gave notice in June 2012, as required, that they were not prepared to allow ERC to renegotiate television rights going forward. The current deal with Sky expires at the end of this season.
That should have immediately triggered meaningful discussions but ERC preferred a stand-off. Everybody, PRL and LNR included, wants a pan European tournament to continue but the Heineken Cup was rushed into service as soon as the game became professional and everyone knows the format and financial arrangements are flawed and need changing.
Last season, as the managing director of a struggling Aviva Premiership club, the changes being proposed made good sense. They were a glimmer of hope for the future - a reason to be optimistic about the viability of professional rugby in England, a carrot for potential investors.
At present, 52% of the television and sponsorship revenue goes to the Celtic League representatives whilst only 48% goes to the English and French Leagues even though they provide more than half the competing sides. PRL and LNR are proposing that each league takes one third and to sweeten the pill they have already negotiated a new television deal that is advantageous for everybody. PRL's new partners, BT Sport have promised a substantial increase if they get the rights so that there will be more money on the table for Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy even if their overall share is reduced.
Money is only part of the problem, however. The English and French also want major changes in the structure of the competition. They argue with some justification that the whole qualification process is a farce.
Whilst their clubs have to battle for a place in the top six of their domestic competition to qualify, three of the four Welsh and Irish sides are guaranteed entry as are both Scottish districts and the two Italian teams. This season Newport Gwent Dragons are the only Celtic League side not competing in the Heineken Cup.
This 'security' means that the Celtic League is not as competitive as it should be with players often being rested and saved for the big European matches. Whilst English and French attendances are on the up, some of the crowds in the Celtic League are pitifully poor.
With the second tier of European competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, a pale shadow of the Heineken - clubs frequently play second string sides and with four Italian sides, one Portuguese and one Romanian team there are frequent mis-matches - it is not as if there is worthwhile competition for the English and French clubs that do not make it into the main draw either.
It is against this background that PRL and LNR have refused to negotiate with ERC - threat and counter-threat being batted back and forth almost daily. PRL have now said they do not even recognise ERC and insist a new company be set-up to run European Cups in future.
The reality, as always has to be compromise. As a Welshman I believe a really competitive European Cup is absolutely essential for the health of the national team because the Celtic League is not strong enough but I do believe that competition would improve if there was more to fight for. I accept that each of the Six Nations should be guaranteed at least one representative in the Heineken Cup to ensure it remains a truly European tournament but some sort of pre-qualifying round for the final pool places might spice things up.
If ERC would agree to that and address the distribution of finances I still believe the English and French clubs will come back to the fold - something has to give, the Heineken Cup is too good and too important to lose.
In the mean-time Toulouse and Saracens must be wondering how they got to be so lucky. Being in Pool 3 with Connacht and Zebre should guarantee they both progress to the knock-out stages. Contrast that with Pool 1 - Castres, Northampton, Ospreys and Leinster - same tournament, different class - that sort of anomaly is what the English and French are complaining about.
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist
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