Pride must be swallowed to sort out this Euro-shambles

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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

22 thoughts on “Pride must be swallowed to sort out this Euro-shambles

  1. Jamie, you say “This is a perfectly legitimate complaint, given that teams like Zebre offer very little to the competition” then say “what every fan unequivocally wants is a proper European competition with proper representation from all countries” which is pretty much what I would have said in answer to the first point, which I disagree with. Trips to Italy, visiting Italian fans, a truly European flavour to the cup. This is what they bring. They also bring an improving side. As for “Bath, etc. would be better” it’s not other countries faults that England and France have more fans/money and hence have well over a dozen fully pro teams each to compare to Italy’s two.

    As for the rest of what you say, I agree. The posturing, from both sides, that this isn’t about money/power is ridicolous and builds mistrust. It is, as you say, exactly about money and power. Part of the reason I dislike it (the part that reaches beyond my desire to protect Welsh rugby, admittedly it’s a small part) as that it won’t end here. Once this is done we’ll have Leics turning on Exeter, Toulouse turning on Bayonne, etc. for the same reasons – all of the money is concentrated in a few clubs. We’ll have a football situation of the same half dozen competing for the national and euro leagues every year, with zero chance of anyone else getting in. Worse, we all know what that has meant for international football in the home nations – it’ll be worse in rugby as the international game bankrolls every country except England and France.

    Lock em in a room and don’t let em out until it’s sorted. The compromise has to be to give in to some of the Eng/Fre money/power demands while still getting something that enables the game to be played competitively elsewhere.

    1. Trips to Italy are great Brighty but is it fair that a team that hasn’t won a single game all season is guaranteed a place in the top European competition? The Amlin is still a European Cup, and so there would still be plenty of clubs travelling to Italy for games. Especially if it was cut to 20 teams, which would see some of the bigger clubs drop down to the Amlin every year.

      Also how would you feel if Cardiff finished sixth but were then not allowed into the Heineken because Zebre had an automatic spot, despited having finished twelfth? It’s perhaps a bit unfair to play on your loyalties like that, but you get my point.

      I also genuinely think it would be better for Zebre’s development to play in the Amlin. Once they’ve proved themselves in that competition they might start getting a few wins in the Rabo, and then can challenge Treviso for the Italian spot (if that’s how it ends up working out).

      If it’s going to be split to six from each league, the Rabo should be guaranteed 2 Welsh, 2 Irish, 1 Scottish and 1 Italian team. Kind of like the Super Rugby conference system – the top of each national ‘conference’ would qualify. It’s far from perfect but seems like the best suggestion to me.

      1. Totally agreed, Jamie! I think the ERC basically gave the PRL and LNR all the ammunition they needed to call time on the agreement when they agreed to allow Zebre (a team that had NEVER played a game in “anger” straight into the Heineken Cup last season. To put a club with no track record at all in ANY competition into the Premium European Competition was ludicrous to say the least.

      2. Well, I disagree with Fred that the Zebre example gives anyone the right to do what they’re doing but do agree with the end point both of you are making of a 2,2,1,1 split from the Pro 12.

        Jamie – that’s the compromise though with regards to Blues missing out. If Blues come 3rd in Wales I’d still say we’re better than Treviso but Treviso would still go through. Dragons regularly beat Treviso but they miss out on HC at the mo. Line has to be drawn somewhere.

        There will be nasty consequences though that till negate the idea of engendering competitiveness in the Pro 12. For example I would fully expect Ireland to decide to shove all of their money into 2 teams and have 2 dev teams, instead of the 3/1 split they currently have. Scotland may well do the same. Trickier in Wales due to non central control but the finances would likely make it happen eventually.

        Perhaps I’m all for “top 6” now. I feel I’ve been worn down and just want them to bloody get on with it. First home game of the season tomorrow. I’d like to have a rough idea soon if it matters at all where we end up in the league in terms of qualification (of course it matters, I want to win the league, but I don’t like this bloody limbo).


  2. I think it should be the top six from each league.

    It should be the top clubs in Europe fighting it out amongst themselves to be crowned the best club.

    Regardless of whether Scottish or Italian clubs miss out, that should be the case.

    1. Andy, why do you assume “top clubs” and “top 6 from each league” are the same thing? What if the 7th/8th in France are better than 5th/6th in England? Or 8th/9th from England are better than 5th/6th from the Rabo?

      The truth is that the Euro cup will never be about the best of the best – it’ll be the best from each method of qualification chosen.

      Saying you want it to the best of the best does not then logically follow that this can only mean the top X from each league.

  3. I know I have written it before, but it’s about balance. Yes the competition should be as strong as possible, but it also should include as many nations as possible.

    I said it somewhere else yesterday that 6+6+8 makes the most sense. 20 teams. The Italian teams have a very good chance of making the top 8 in the Rabo. If they miss out occasionally, it isn’t the end of the world. This will also strengthen the interest in the Amlin, which is something else that is needed.

    I don’t really understand why that can’t happen?

    1. Because the idiots we have in charge of our game are too self interested, too egocentric and too committee bound to just do the common sense thing.

  4. I proposed the following on another board, and a lot of people thought there was merit in it:

    “My view (and, yes, I’ve banged on long enough in the past on it) is that any club that is entered into the competition should be better than 50% of the teams playing in the top flight competition for that country’s clubs. For the French, that means a team should come in the top half of the top 14. For “English, come in the top half of the AP. For the Irish and Welsh , be either the first or second team from your country in the Rabo12. For the Scots and the Italians, be the higher of the teams from your country in the Rabo12. The previous years’ HC (or equivalent) gets a place automatically. If they’re qualified “twice” the Amlin/Equivalent gets the final spot. If they’ve both already qualified, the final 20th slot goes to the next qualified from the country of the HC winner.

    If you look at the Rabo12, they finished as follows:


    Now, As I would have it, Ulster & Leinster would qualify for Ireland, Glasgow for Scotland, Scarlets & Ospreys for Wales, and Treviso for Italy, all based on position.

    From the Top 14:
    Clermont Auvergne
    RC Toulon
    Stade Toulousain
    Castres Olympique
    Montpellier Hérault
    Racing Métro
    USA Perpignan

    From the AP:
    Leicester Tigers
    Northampton Saints
    Exeter Chiefs

    That’s 19 teams. The final spot would first off go to the HC winner (Toulon) but they’re already qualified, so it descends to the Amlin winner. That’s Leinster. They’ve already qualified by means of position, so it goes to the next team from the HC winners country, which would mean that Aviron Bayonnais would be the final team for the 20 team competition.

    Now, I can hear the screams of “How can you ‘let’ Munster drop out of the competition?!?” Well, them’s the breaks, as my American colleagues would say. Yes, they did well in the HC, but at the detriment of their position in the Rabo12. Based on the position there, half of the teams from their country are BETTER than they are….

    All teams trying to qualify based on being better than 50% of the teams in their country. Every team trying to ensure qulification into the following season’s competition through league position whilst at the same time progress through the current competion. Supporters in all leagues have meaningful games throughout the year. Everyone qualifies on merit, and there are benefits to winning the HC and AC. If you win the HC but come just outside your qualification position, you stay in (this is very unlikely if you look at the teams you would expect to be in the final stages), and if you win the AC, then there’s the possibility of graduating up a competition as well.”

    1. A very common sense approach, and I think largely what I was suggesting – just put a bit more clearly perhaps! As John also says, heartbreak and fear are a huge part of sport and if you’re guaranteed a Heineken Cup spot where does that come from?

      Sure you might have to tough a season out in the Amlin but that will surely only make you work harder next season to get straight back into the Heineken… as happens in the Top 14 and Premiership.

      Of course the issue of money clouds everything – with fewer teams in the competition the Celts and Italians will get less money, when they’re already being left behind by the French. Hardly going to help things. Hence why the salary cap needs changing. Either that or the French are only allowed a limited number of imports in their H Cup squads. But that’s getting pretty Draconian.

      1. Jamie, the salary cap removal only helps the English compete with the French though, and even then only some of the English. There is no cap in Ireland and the cap in Wales was self inflicted i.e. we have money X so let’s say that is also the salary cap. They don’t have any more money than the cap.

  5. I almost entirely agree with fearless fred above.

    ‘Thems the breaks’ is pretty much the way sport should be looked at, there should be fear, Joy, Heartbreak and Triumph. If Munster don’t play well enough over a season to qualify, then they would have to do better next year, taking the league seriously might also drive up some of those attendances in the Rabo12..

    The chance to battle for the European cup is earned over a long bloody season..

  6. An entirely sensible suggestion which unfortunately is unlikely to get the time of day due to the shortsighted nationalistic fighting going on, or maybe we will end up with something like this….

  7. 6+6+8, with no extra slots to the league that provides last year’s HC and Amlin winner just seems like the best compromise. My fear is because this position hasn’t been negotiated towards, from either side, we have now lost the opportunity to get there. Both sides have negotiated hard, believing in the strength of their hand. From what I’ve read it seems the ERC have felt they were in an impregnable position as they are the ones with the IRB mandate to run a European competition. They haven’t taken the threat seriously that a competition could be set up outside of their control. I assume they have just dismissed it all as sabre rattling.

    6+6+6+2 may well end up with 8 French sides in some seasons, whilst this may be an accurate reflection on the balance of power of European rugby we could theoretically end up with all French quarter finals!

    My wish is that we have a salary cap for European squads (or a financial fair play rule) and a minimum number of home nation representatives in match day squads. I’m all for rugby professionals earning big money in a short career, but not when money flowing out of the sport exceeds income.

    However, there could be a solution for the future of the barbarians debated over the summer, just book Toulon for another game, problem solved a team of international all stars that don’t need time to gel together.

    1. but who gets the 8 teams? The extra slots for the league that wins HC and Amlin winner is fair as it allows teams to progress. If they were to bring in a third level competition, then its winner should get entry to the Amlin the following season. Who’s to say that the top team in Germany or Georgia isn’t allowed to compete with the big boys?

  8. There are details in this that confuse me. Let’s say their is compromise and the ERC sanctioned tournament (i.e. the Heineken Cup) changes to top 6 from each league and money split on league lines.

    Where does that leave the EPL with the BT deal? ERC have signed a SKY deal so I’d assume that goes forward. Do BT then sue EPL or something?

    1. Hit send too soon … so my point is, are we now at the point where anything involving the ERC, and therefore SKY, cannot go forward because it would bankrupt the EPL?

      1. Actually, I think it is ERC & Sky who are on shaky ground. Let me run through my reasoning….

        July 2012, the PRL and LNR clubs announce their decision to withdraw, as allowed under the ERC compact, thereby meaning that after the end of the 13/14 season, the ERC is effectively dissolved; ergo, no competition exists.

        September 2012, BT and PRL announce the deal that agrees BT rights to broadcast English teams games in any future European competition post the 13/14 season.

        ERC then quickly announce they’ve signed again with Sky as exclusive broadcaster for the future Heineken Cup. However, that competition doesn’t exist, as the ERC don’t have agreement from at least two of the competitors about any compact for future competitions. If there is to be a new compact, then broadcasting rights will have to be negotiated as part of it, to the agreement of all 6 nation’s clubs.

        Because BT and PRL chose to phrase it as “BT will also have exclusive live broadcast rights to matches played by Aviva Premiership Rugby clubs in any future European competitions from 2014-15 for three years”, they basically managed to cover their bases ahead of any renewed compact. ERC, by basically agreeing rights to a specific competition that has to be agreed to by the PRL & LNR have sold something SPECIFIC that doesn’t exist.

        1. That sounds feasible. I would not be so sure though that the notice to quite effectively means a dissolved comp and therefore gets ERC out of it’s contract with SKY.

          There is also the factor that EPL have effectively sold other teams TV rights as the BT deal includes away matches. So the EPL have sold their rights for matches in Cardiff, for example, that feature English teams. On top of it being rude and unprecedented to do this I think there’s an IRB clause somewhere about it that basically says what you’d expect – home teams/unions sell their own rights. This is why when England went to SKY in the 6Ns a few years ago they could only take their home games and the one in Paris.

          Also at the moment the only comp sanctioned by IRB is one setup by the ERC so the ERC do have some small bargaining power here in that the IRB (with the daft old two votes for each home nation rule) is unlikely to go against ERC.

          Very messy it would seem to me.

  9. I’ve felt for sometime that Scotland (and I guess Italy), shouldn’t have two direct entrants (or at least, 100% entry) to the Heineken cup. Having one in the Amlin wouldn’t have been all that bad a thing as it would have boosted that teams ranking in europe (look at Connacht), while still playing meaningful european rugby.

    As has been mooted in other reports, probably the best situation would be three competitions.

    Top level (current HC): 20 teams, 6 from Aviva, Top 14, Pro12 (top 2 plus one from each union based on league positions), along with the previous year’s winner and the winner of the second level competition (or from same league, but keep same thing about max of 7 from england and France).

    5 groups of 4 teams. winners of each pool plus three best runners up to Quarters. 4th and 5th runners up drop to Second Level Quarters.

    Second level (current Amlin): 20 teams, 5 English, 6 French, 5 pro12 (based on league positions), winner of Third Level, three others from the top10 in Italy/romania/etc.

    5 groups of 4 teams. winners of each pool plus best runner up to Quarters, joined by 2 teams from top level. 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th runners up drop to Third Level Quarters.

    Third Level: Promoted team in England, 12th in Pro12, Two Lowest ranked promoted team in France (though they will no doubt end up in Second level anyway), and 13 other teams from the likes of Russia/Georgia/Germany/etc. No reason why some of the teams competing in the B&I couldn’t play in this instead.
    4 pools of 4, winners plus 4 teams from second level to Quarter finals.

  10. To Jamie and all you guys I must give a great thanks you for your comments. Living in South Africa for many years, the Only Major competitions in Europe for me have been the HC, Top 14 and Aviva. I was never to sure where the Rabo Direct, Amlin etc fit into the picture. No wonder I suffer in Superbru! I will study all of your comments to try and get my head around what is all about. For me the best solution for all Rugby Fans will be a top competition which includes all the “genuine” contenders to the betterment of us all. Thanks to all of you.

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