The Blog

Rugby: Is The Heineken Cup Really Without a Future?

The trajectory of the negotiations that started over a year ago to agree a new accord beyond the current season, is a tale of brinkmanship resulting from the abandonment of meaningful cooperation and a refusal to even contemplate change. Myopia is the common theme here and no group is blameless in this episode.

Hugely popular and with a compelling history, it seems odd that the Heineken European Rugby Cup (ERC) is apparently on its lap of honour, and set for a forced retirement at the season's end. Given the strengths of the competition, it seems ridiculous to be in such a mess. A hooligan's game played by gentlemen perhaps, but run by buffoons most certainly.

The trajectory of the negotiations that started over a year ago to agree a new accord beyond the current season, is a tale of brinkmanship resulting from the abandonment of meaningful cooperation and a refusal to even contemplate change. Myopia is the common theme here and no group is blameless in this episode.

Despite that it was the English and French clubs who set the fuse on this time-bomb, the remaining stakeholders are equally culpable for the current mess as they failed to engage, anchoring themselves to a lopsided status quo arrangement. This was all the more ill-advised as despite all countries needing a healthy European Cup in the long run, the Pro12 contingent (Irish, Welsh, Scottish & Italian clubs) has less flexibility and are far more vulnerable without it in the short term.

As trust evaporated and schisms widened, the negotiations stalled leading inexorably to this point where the stage is set for legal trench warfare. Objectively examining this mess, it's hard not to feel that all this was so avoidable, although it remains my prediction that the competition will go on, ending the torture for the real victims, the supporters.

Initially the dispute that Premiership Rugby (English Clubs) and their French counterparts at the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) brought forward was one of remuneration and meritocracy. Receiving substantially less per club than those from the Pro12 in a form of redistribution, their gripe was understandable, as was their insistence that the number of qualifiers from the combined Pro12 must be reduced and brought into line.

Showing poor judgment, the Pro12 contingent underestimated the revolutionaries resolve to amend these grievances. The counterargument that England & France already received the lion's share of profits was mostly blunt, not mentioning that they also provide the highest number of the participating teams, or that their large home audiences are the main reason for the grand TV revenues and investment in the competition.

Also the refusal to structurally alter the competition's composition was equally self-serving. Reducing the Pro12 contingent to six from ten of course incurs losers, but will actually make for a more equitable and higher caliber of tournament. Despite some real progress, Italian rugby is still not at the races, and their two participants in the European Cup have caused skews in the competition that are rarely mentioned. Groups lucky enough to contain an Italian side, in most cases were those groups from which the runners-up more than often progressed. Scottish rugby might also be a loser in this reduced competition as guaranteed entitlements to be reigned in. Reforms are never easy, but that doesn't mean they aren't justified.

These initial complaints did indeed have merit, and as such, the Pro12 group has recently, albeit belatedly agreed to rebalance wealth distribution and qualification equally among the three separate leagues. It took backbone to achieve this progress which is commendable, but the latest move by the revolutionary clubs of England & France to grasp power with governance changes is wholly less defensible and less relevant. Winston Churchill's words that while,

"courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen"

seem well fitted here. Rugby supporters care little for the numbers of different colour blazers in boardrooms, and so this issue seems unlikely to win popular support.

More probable is that this is actually just a proxy war of money complicated by egos and agendas. Premiership Rugby has already sold the rights to a European competition that does not exist. It's true that the BT broadcasting deal they secured is a money-spinner, but it's curious to wonder why this potential deal wasn't brought to the ERC, thereby ensuring it would be adopted for the benefit of all?

Perhaps it was, but it seems inconceivable that the ERC would have refused a more lucrative deal if given the option. In any event, it also raises serious questions about the ERCs commercial savvy. How is it that they would lock into a deal with Sky Sports, when the marketplace was willing to pay a hefty lot more?

The English clubs do have a commitment to a breakaway competition, but it's unlikely BT will give them their millions unless they convince others to join them. The Welsh clubs might break ranks and join as has been mooted, but alone, a second Anglo-Welsh Cup is unlikely to have huge appeal. Equally a trophy without the regularly triumphant Irish clubs would be like a UEFA Champions League without the Spanish, hollow.

Notwithstanding all these qualitative reasons, the biggest impediments however to this breakaway competition are fundamentally legal and political, rather than simply being a national preference for one over the other.

I am not a lawyer, but given that the ERC is under the umbrella of the International Rugby Board (IRB), if it was to be wound-up as an entity, it is probable that Sky Sports would pursue the IRB and the individual unions/federations who make up the current ERC despite its limited liability. Perhaps the Anglo-Francs who served mandatory notice to leave the ERC might be legally safe, maybe not so for the others. Unintended victims maybe, but there are always consequences.

Recently the US Government fined JPMorgan Chase $13bn largely on account of what the banks of Bear Stearns & Washington Mutual did before JPMorgan bought them, even though these purchases directly helped the US Government during the economic crisis. The lesson here is that if the money goes missing, somebody will be held accountable, however noble they might be, and despite who actually caused the mess.

Additionally, on the political front, French Clubs cannot legally join a new competition without the French Government's permission and this seems unlikely. This might seem strange to those outside France, but state funding and facilities play a more significant role than in Britain or Ireland, and so private clubs in France are not quite as autonomous as those in England.

In the unexpected event the French Government was to consider granting this permission, it seems reasonable to presume that the IRB could lobby them effectively with a suggestion that French hopes to host a future Rugby World Cup could be irreparably damaged.

After petulance wears off, the Heineken European Cup will endure for pragmatic reasons. English Clubs may well boycott for a year or so, but they will not remain in the cold for long. Before things descend that far, they ought to consider the words of G.K Chesterton that,

"the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. He is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

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