ERC May Have to Step Aside for Heineken Cup to Endure

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

14 thoughts on “ERC May Have to Step Aside for Heineken Cup to Endure

  1. Do you think the competition could go on as the Heineken Cup, but without ERC involvement? Or vice versa as the Rugby Champions Cup with the ERC staggering on?

    Considering the apparent committment to involve all stakeholders – where are the non-6N nations? Spain, Portugal and Romania have stakes in this already.

    1. Conjecture on my part, but I think it’s because these sides are invited to play, so are participants but not stakeholders.

      I’m in complete agreement with you that they should be involved however, surely they are going to be much better placed to advise on how best to grow the game in their countries and also how to achieve the max revenue from tier 1 & 2 coverage in those markets.

      1. Absolutely -grow the game (better than ERC did) and show the comp to be really pan European – exciting

  2. I’m (pleasantly) surprised the PRL/LNR statement did offer a guaranteed income for the Rabo teams. I guess this is their way of communicating that there is no advantage to staying with the ERC, we will provide you with the same safety net.

    16 months ago the French and English served notice, so a bit stronger than communicating an intention. 16 months in which this current position could have been reached. All we’ve had is 16 months of denial and 16 months of statements why they can’t do it and why it won’t happen. Have PRL/LNR covered themselves in glory in this time period? Certainly not. But I do put the brunt of the blame on the ERC for failing to progress with a proposal that actually made good sense.

    I just don’t see why PRL/LNR would now consider returning and and trusting the ERC with their long term commercial/financial interests (which is a survival issue for some of the clubs) when they believe they can manage the affairs better themselves. With the partnership with BT there seems some substance to this as well, BT have reportedly doubled viewership figures for the premiership so continuing this partnership for the European coverage seems a better option than the ERC/Sky deal. So I do back the leagues abilities to a) generate greater income; b) run a competition with lower overheads, for a start they won’t be spending money on mediators!

    I just hope they don’t look too short term and they do fund a 3rd 20 team comp. This is a far better way of growing the game than playing a tier 1 final in Germany for example (which is just a gimmick). More countries involved in tier 3, with opportunities to qualify for tier 2, provides access to more markets to sell tier 1 and tier 2 coverage (and generate interest in it).

    1. Agreed Matt -PRL and LNR can’t do business anymore with ERC; no relationship can continue when the only way you are listened to is when you threaten divorce.
      And yes, for me, the 3rd tier is the really fascinating bit. Their are 42 unions in FIRA-AER outside of the 6N, the 3rd tier can support them. But I hope they have a rep on the board of RCC. ERC failed to do this but then it always was a cartel

  3. So the English and French clubs have got what they wanted. Their brinkmanship has succeeded. However, they continue to want rid of the ERC. This doesn’t seem unreasonable as the ERC, as many posters have alluded to, haven’t been particularly efficient.

    So what if they get rid of the ERC and continue in the H Cup format proposed with a new governing body? Will the LNR and premiership clubs then agree that all their demands have been met and they will continue with the competition that is in place?

    I believe the answer should be yes. However, only as long as their tv deals are fulfilled. Which begs the question, why were premiership clubs signing tv deals with BT that includes cross border competitions with consulting those across the border?

    I agree the ERC have been poor and possibly are in need of a re vamp or replacement. However, a lot of people on this blog seem to be underplaying the issue that English and French clubs signed a tv deal without consulting all the relevant parties.

    1. I agree with you on the most part, but I think the English made a good move with the TV deal.

      The English knew that worse case scenario, they would play a competition with the French teams. Not great, but they still comply with their BT contract.

      They also gave themselves a huge amount of bargaining power with all the revenue offered to the teams with the BT deal.

      Not a particularly honest way of working, but good plan and it seems to be working.

      1. I don’t see it as underhand or dishonest, if I hand in my notice at work and and accept another contract of employment from a different employer during my notice period (to start after the notice period has finished) then I’m not sure what the issue is.

    2. But they ‘handed in their notice’ 16 months ago. Starting to put plans in place, finding new broadcast partners etc seems reasonable to me. They haven’t sold the rights to the Heineken Cup, they already communicated they had left the Heineken cup. They’ve done exactly what RCC is about, the leagues maximising the revenue for all, because they believe they can do it better than the ERC.

      Not many people hand in their notice at work and then do nothing about finding a new source of income until their notice period is over. It’s not realistic to expect the English and French to sit on their hands and do nothing for 2 years whilst they play out their ‘notice period’.

      The reason the BT deal has become an distraction is because people have been under the assumption that English/French aren’t really leaving, are still part of the ERC comps beyond this year and therefore are selling something they don’t own and selling something which the ERC already sold. It’s actually the ERC deal with Sky that is more of a problem, because they have sold the rights to a competition that no longer exists involving participants that have already told you they aren’t going to be there (yes this deal was done after the French/English served notice).

      1. Our clubs served notice. Not our national federation (the RFU). The problem was that, several months after serving notice, our clubs signed a rebel TV deal (not merely lined one up as a bargaining tool) incompatible with the Heineken Cup. That has made negotiations almost impossible, and when there was not a great deal of dispute over format and qualification beyond persuading the Scots and the Italians to take the financial hit. A total mess.

  4. I also find the views of some of the club owners just rediculous. The interview on the bbc with the saints chairman does not endear me to his cause. When asked if he will let the comp go ahead without IRB sign off, he throws out some waffle about what the fans want.

    What the fans want is cross European trophy with the best teams. Any victory without Irish and Scottish teams will be hollow. They have to at least negotiate.

    1. It’s just another briefing. I have to say that the English owners and managers have been the worst of the lot in this respect, although their position does seem to have been vindicated to a certain extent. I hate how this has played out, and agree as to what the fans want.

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