At the tail end of last season, we posted on the demands of the English and French clubs (here and here) to make HEC qualification more “merit-based”. We rather sympathised with their issues with the Pro12, and largely agreed with the Anglo-French proposal.
They will be discussed today in Dublin, and the Premiership has dramatically raised the stakes with the announcement of their TV deal with BT Vision – this includes the Premiership, the Anglo-Welsh Cup and (crucially) HEC games involving English clubs from 2014 onwards. The ERC’s first reponse was to effectively say “You can’t do this”, but McCafferty et al appear to have read the small print and seem to be confident that they can – given the ERC announced Sky have right to all HEC games until 2018, clearly someone needs a good lawyer. We’ve more questions than answers on the legal issues – if anyone has any insight into this, please share it with us in the comments section.
It’s an extremely provocative step from the English, leading to plenty of articles with the word “arrogance”, and rightly so. It’s worth noting they are dangling a portion of this cash in front of the Celtic unions, telling them “You are welcome to a slice, so long as you do things our way”. With the famous parsimony of the IRFU, and the cash-strapped nature of the WRU and SRU, the English will be hoping it’s enough to make them to go all weak at the knees and fold like a cheap suit in the face of the flashy Englishmen and their sterling. It’s also an attack on their own union, the RFU, with whom they have long been at loggerheads. It’s a grab at taking ownership of the European Cup out of the union’s hands and into their own.
BT haven’t exactly behaved with mild restraint either. Talk of ‘owning a sport entirely’ is extraordinarily arrogant and misplaced, and the surety with which they talk about the end of the Heineken Cup is recklessly presumptuous. Who the heck are these Johnny Come Latelys anyway?
Ultimately, while European qualification is in the picture, this one’s all about money and power (well, duh). And what a grubby old business it is. But while it is difficult to like the brashness and obvious greed of the Premiership chairmen, it’s also important to bear in mind the situation in which some of them find themselves. The clubs who don’t own their own ground perennially struggle to break even, and if they fall too far underwater, the union won’t be bailing them out – a look at Wasps’ near-death experience is instructive here. Last year only four Premiership clubs returned a profit. Little wonder they’re looking for a greater share of the pie. But as Gerry Thornley pointed out this week, in comparing Saracens’ head Nigel Wray’s comments about money with the meagre performance and attendances they delivered in the competition, they’re not necessarily entitled to it.
Word is that the Celtic nations are apoplectic over the TV deal, but are willing to compromise over the qualification rules. Indications are the Irish and Welsh have put together a proposal to maintain the 24-team structure, with eight qualifying from each of the three major leagues. We can only presume the Scottish and Italians are not behind this. Ultimately, we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the tournament ended up looking very close to the structure we outlined, with one guaranteed participant from each Pro12 union and meritocracy coming into play after that.
It all leaves the French Top 14 clubs with the casting vote. Align themselves with the Premiership and the Celts pretty much have to fall in line or retreat to their Pro12 competition. But while the French are in agreement with the English over qualification rules, they have not acted with anything like the same bullishness, and appear more than a little put out over the TV announcement deal. We can’t imagine a powerful group like the Ligue Natioanle Rugby allowing the Englsih to dictate terms over the new format, and the French have always had a better relationship with their Celtic Cousins than Les Rosbifs. The English continue to threaten an Anglo-French league as a viable option should the Celts not jump on board, but the French appear disinterested in such a format. It could be that the Premiership solo run has lost them their most important prospective ally, leaving them looking more than a little isolated.
We suspect there is nothing the humble rugby punter (needless to say, not at the forefront of anyone’s thinking in all of this) would enjoy more than to see the Premiership clubs hoist by their own petard. Oh to be a fly on the wall at today’s meeting.