The Heineken Cup is on life support. It has been rendered terminally ill in its present state, and faces a tense battle for survival in a new form. There are those who are determined to pull the plug from the machine and extinguish the tournament’s fading hopes. But on Thursday, it transpired that some were frantically charging up the defibrillators.
European Rugby Cup (ERC), the body that runs both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups, held long overdue meetings on Wednesday and Thursday with the relevant European stakeholders. Except not all those relevant stakeholders were in attendance, with the groups representing the English and French top-flight clubs (Premiership Rugby (PRL) and Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) respectively) refusing to be present, their resolve to make their proposed tournament, the Rugby Champions Cup, a reality steadfast.
So, what revelations – or at least resolutions – did the get-together yield? Well, none, really. The full statement can be found here, but ludicrously, the “concessions” reached by the group are almost exactly what was demanded by the Anglo-French coalition months ago. You couldn’t make it up. Two cross-border competitions of twenty teams apiece. Six teams from the Aviva Premiership and Top14, and seven from the Pro12 with at least one club from each Celtic or Italian nation qualifying automatically. A play-off system will decide the remaining spot. Revenue, too, will be split three equal ways between the three respective leagues.
Now, these findings may be palatable to most, particularly the breakaway brigade, but the serious and rather obvious question remains: what took ERC so long to bring the parties together? Why were talks not held months, or even years ago when the English and French clubs first voiced their grievances, and latterly, their intention to leave? Those same clubs have grown increasingly frustrated with the actions of ERC, and it is not certain that even the allowances of this week’s meetings can convince them to return to the fold.
In fact, later on Thursday, PRL Chief Mark McCafferty reaffirmed the breakaway’s refusal to work with the body currently in charge of European rugby.
“We have always said that there is no way we are going into any competitions that are run by ERC after the end of this season. That hasn’t changed. We feel a fresh start has got to be made,” he said.
ERC’s own brand mission states that the body aims “to realise the potential of European club rugby by…connecting stakeholders…” Surely, then, it’s farcical that they should fail so spectacularly in their own self-styled duty.
With a raging storm wreaking havoc on European rugby, there was the ERC appointment of one man tasked with quelling it. Canadian lawyer Graham Mew was hired as an independent mediator, charged with the unenviable task of bringing order to the unsightly squabble.
It was Mr Mew and fellow mediator Stephen Drymer who emerged with this week’s conclusions rather than ERC themselves. However, quite what there was to mediate with one side of the rift absent remains something of a mystery. In addition, the eventual outcome with which they appeared was, as mentioned, little more than the blueprint already laid out by PRL and LNR. In fact, if mediation is so straightforward, so important and so lucrative, perhaps we should all forego our day jobs and give it a shot?
McCafferty did seem more positive on the initial agreements brokered in those meetings, however. Rightly so, as he has largely been given what he wanted in terms of qualification setup and revenue distribution. This does, at last, represent a form of progress, but several issues – not least ERC’s involvement with any modified tounament – continue to niggle.
“It seems that the proposals we have made on competition formats and on financial distribution have been accepted,” he said.
“Hopefully, it is a sign that in due course the whole approach we’ve been proposing is bought into. I guess time will tell.
“It is far from complete, but the pieces they have commented on are in line with what we’ve proposed.”
So far, then, we can see the first pieces of the puzzle falling belatedly into place. Chiefly, the tournaments’ arrangement and the division of the cash they generate. What remains, in that case, is the sticky issue of broadcasting rights, with a BT Sport deal of some £150m potentially in the offing. That will be slotted in later. More presently, though, the control and administration of the competitions seems to form a rather large missing chunk. ERC, after months of stubbornness and blundering, will make their case. But the big-spending TV companies will bat not a solitary eyelid should they be forced out, and it may well be that their profile is just too awkward to fit the jigsaw.
By Jamie Lyall – Follow Jamie on Twitter @JLyall93
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images