Well, this is quite a mess. It has been brewing, of course, with consistent reports of the failure to come to a common agreement that suits all parties. Tuesday’s announcement, however, that the English and French would form a breakaway tournament has finally brought the matter to a head. A deluge of tweets have appeared on everyone’s timelines with every rugby fan and his dog offering their opinion – so here’s mine.
One of the French and English clubs’ main gripes with the current system is that the method of qualification is unfair. Why should, for example, Zebre (and I apologise for using them as a scapegoat here) be able to lose every game in a season and still qualify automatically, while in the Premiership and Top 14 clubs have to battle season-long to make the top six in order to qualify?
This is a perfectly legitimate complaint, given that teams like Zebre offer very little to the competition, while teams like Bath or Stade Français, who undoubtedly could compete (at least to a certain stage of the tournament), wallow in the Amlin. The Zebre-like teams would be far better off challenging at their own level in the secondary competition, where they would be far more likely to pick up morale-boosting wins.
The suggestion of a 20 team tournament, made up of six teams from each league plus the Heineken and Amlin winners, seems to make sense. The practicalities would be a little more difficult, however – what if a nation does not have a team in the top six of the Celtic league? Are they automatically guaranteed at least one spot, and if so does that mean the team actually finishing sixth has to sacrifice their place? It would need to be decided if finishing higher in the league, or having proper representation from all nations, was more important.
In reality, however, this moaning about qualification is a feeble mask for the real issue the French and English have with the current set-up: that old two-headed dragon, money and power. Simply put, they do not feel like they have enough of either, and have thus taken the bold move to play hardball.
Firstly, and most importantly, there is the money. The convenience of the timing of this announcement is not lost on anyone. With the new BT Sport deal in place, the money available to the English clubs in particular has emboldened them to finally take on the ERC hierarchy, which they believe is dominated by the Celtic Nations. They are also unhappy about the way the money is divided currently, believing the current split is not equitable.
It is impossible to have a conversation about European rugby and money without mentioning the salary cap. It is so glaringly imbalanced, with French powerhouses bankrolled by multimillionaires able to sign world class talent, while struggling Welsh regions battle just to hold onto their one or two stars. Even if the European competition can be saved, what hope do these clubs have of dethroning the might of the French giants?
This morning’s confirmation of Ma’a Nonu’s arrival at Clermont, in an area where they already boast Wesley Fofana, Aurélien Rougerie, Benson Stanley, Mike Delany and Regan King (formerly of the Scarlets himself), is a further reminder of their ludicrously lavish spending power.
Naturally money and power are linked. With the new TV money behind them the English and French finally feel capable to take on the ERC hierarchy, in which they are consistently outvoted by the other four nations. This is why they feel like they have been forced to take matters into their own hands, as any suggestions they bring up are consistently shot down. They know that the absence of a viable European tournament for the Celts and Italy would be a crippling blow they cannot afford at this time, and with the BT deal in place for any Anglo-French spin-off the power is finally in their hands.
Still, the way this has played out through the media does not reflect well on anyone. Tuesday’s bombshell was released just in time to influence yesterday’s ERC meeting. The European body’s statement then appeared to suggest the English and French were still keen to find a solution with the other nations, despite their insistence to contrary. Confused? I certainly am.
Nigel Wray, the outspoken Saracens CEO, mentioned the neglect of the ‘customer’ in all of this: “To me, the one person always neglected in these discussions is the customer. What do they want? They don’t want more and more games, they want big games. They don’t want to see meaningless games. If that is what the customer wants, then that is what you’ve got to give them.”
That is fair enough, and we do all love the big European clashes, but what every fan unequivocally wants is a proper European competition with proper representation from all countries. I’m sure Sarries or Saints fans would relish playing Toulon and Clermont every season, but realistically an Anglo-French competition does not have the same romanticism and drama to inspire fans as the Heineken Cup does. It is a solution driven by money and power and for that reason fans will struggle to feel as passionately about it.
The worst thing about all this is that it looks like, for next season at least, there will be no Heineken Cup. There may be some sort of replacement involving English and French (and possibly South African, if those rumours are true) teams, but that is not what rugby fans want. Yes, it might not be the perfect format, but the vast majority of us still love the Heineken Cup and to see it disappear would be a travesty. That said, something needs to be done about the salary cap issue, because it is not realistic to expect teams with such glaringly different budgets to form a competitive tournament.
With the bulk of the power and money in the hands of the English and French it is hard to see another way of the Heineken Cup continuing, other than the Celtic nations agreeing to their demands. It is not right; Premiership Rugby and the LNR’s stubbornness and the way they have played hardball through the media has been ugly, but at a time when the Welsh regions and Irish provinces are desperately struggling to hold onto their star names as it is, the prospect of missing out on a slice of this new financial pie – despite the fact it would be a slimmer one – is too scary for them to consider.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images