Rich Man’s World

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Xyz

     /  September 18, 2012

    Like you I’m sympathetic to the notion that qualifacation from the Rabo should be more competitive – even if it achieves nothing more than making the Rabo less of a training ground for the majority of the season it would achieve something useful. Moreover, it seems intuitively “fair” to have competitive qualification, at least to me.

    The other issue (and let’s be realistic here – the most important issue) is about money. How do you divide up the revenue generated from the 24 teams competing? The English view seems to be that as the income is derived from the six tv markets of the Unions (ignoring any international revenue) then it should be divided up in proportion to these markets. The English and French markets generate the most income; they should get the most revenue.

    The question is, is the ERC as valuable a product without teams such as Leinster competing? Or without the drama of a Radge drop-goal after 20 million phases? Probably not.

    I’m not familiar with the English proposal for revenue distribution but I would have thought that the teams competing in the competition should receive a share in proportion to the number of games they play in the competition, perhaps with a higher weighting on games in the knockout stages. This would seem (once more) intuitively “fair” to me (though perhaps the national Union would receive the income and redistribute it), and if the issue of the qualification from the Rabo is resolved then the whole thing would seem to work. (Clearly if the qualification from the Rabo is not resolved then the English could accuse the Celts of knicking too much of the revenue by having too many teams in the competition).

  2. Len

     /  September 18, 2012

    Ok I actually agree with the premiership on the point of qualification. For one thing it would remove the old group of death v free pass to the knock outs as you would expect the quality of teams to be a bit more uniform. I think that they’ve gone about it in a very ‘we’re the big boys and we say what goes’ manner when in fact they aren’t any more.

    The issue around qualification from the pro 12 will be sticky. If you assume for the minute we only get six teams and one each has to go to the best placed Scottish and Italian teams just to keep them happy then you could end up with the fifth placed team who could be ahead in the league taking legal action to ensure they get in to the HC.

    I haven’t heard if all this impacts the amlin yet? If it does then a similar structure would see all pro 12 teams qualify for European rugby year on year. This might appease the Scottish and Italian ru’s.

    The TV rights will be the biggest issue and as you pointed out the decision of the French will come into play. I wonder could we see a return to the pre prem HC? Would the ERC expel English clubs who aren’t willing to play by their rules?

    The fact that this could be the last HC as we know it makes it even more interesting. I’d love to think that this will spur on the other nations to dump all the English clubs out in the group stage this year but can’t see it happening.

    • Amiga500

       /  September 18, 2012

      I don’t see how any team could take legal action if its a qualification arrangement their union has agreed to.

      They wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

  3. Mike

     /  September 18, 2012

    This is all about one man trying to cling to his job. Mark McCafferty isn’t that popular with the English clubs so has gone shit or bust.

    This is a terrible deal for the English clubs. He has firmly backed them into a corner it might cost them a lot to get out of.

  4. Redhanded

     /  September 18, 2012

    I wonder if ERC went through any sort of tender process before awarding an extension to Sky’s contract? It would strike me as remiss if the ERC didn’t talk to BT… and if they did, why BT didn’t try to “divide and conquer” by doing deals with both ERC and PRL?

    That is the size of the pot… when it comes to divvying out the pot itself, right now it is done based upon:
    – contribution: this is based on the 44 teams that take part in European competitions.
    – merit, based upon number of teams qualifying for the HEC and appearances in HEC QFs and SF. There are also merit payments for ACC but these are meant to be peanuts compared to HEC.

    Next the format. I can see the Pro12 unions needing to concede some qualification places, but rather than just giving them up, I’d prefer if the approach was “play you for them” with a play-off between highest placed non-qualifying Pro12, AP and T14 teams. The PRL keep on telling us that the HEC should be merit based, after all.

    • Len

       /  September 18, 2012

      Ok based of what the AP seem to be saying they’d want a split to be six each to the AP, T14 and P12 with the previous winner of the HC and ACC both getting in.

      If the English are serious about this being merit based then why not decide the split on the basis of % knockout spaces taken by each league in the HC over a period of time say five years. This gives an idea of which league contributes the most to the competition. On this basis the split of the proposed 18 places would be AP 5, T14 6 and P12 7 (having secured an impressive 24 out of 60 places available over the five years).

      It’s a total non runner but shows the P12 bargaining position isn’t as weak as some might think.

      • Mike

         /  September 18, 2012

        Total non runner, for the very same reasons that you mentioned. Also, success is cyclical.

        The fact of the matter is that the English teams just want more money. They aren’t really sure of the details themselves. They don’t care about the national team, the fans (who presumably need a new subscription) or the players. They have shot themselves in the foot as two of the biggest sports broadcasters in the world (Sky and ESPN) will turn their backs on them now. I can’t help but be reminded of how Scottish football turned down Sky 10 years ago….

        The idea of a French/English competition is also a non runner. The French have NO interest in that. Who really wants to watch Bayonne v Exeter anyway. If people did, the Amlin cup wouldn’t be the sideshow it is.

    • Ultra Sur

       /  September 18, 2012

      Cracking idea. Play-offs for places in the following season’s Heineken Cup could make for a super end-of-season finale for those that don’t make the play-offs in their individual leagues.

  5. mxyzptlk

     /  September 18, 2012

    Saw today that the Ligue Nationale Rugby stepped back from England’s proposals and said no matter what they want a competition that’s represented by all six nations. Since they seem to be holding the trump cards, does that mean the English Anglo-French move is all but done?

    It’s almost as if England ran with the ball without any support, and now have no one to offload to…

    • Zaccone

       /  September 18, 2012

      So what you’re saying is England, perhaps, tried to ‘bosh’ their way through the ERC negotiations? Well, at least its not exactly out of character.

      • Amiga500

         /  September 18, 2012

        oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh f**k!

      • Brilliant stuff lads. What’s the source for the LNR stepping back from England’s proposals?

      • mxyzptlk

         /  September 20, 2012

        I’d have to check where I heard it (some podcast), but part of the conversation included the hosts saying France wouldn’t want to give up matches like Clermont v Leinster.

    • mxyzptlk

       /  September 20, 2012

      Got yer sources: On last Friday’s RTE Sport at 7 (Sept. 14), Damien O’Meara and Simon Ward went into some detail, but after Friday’s big meeting O’Meara said the French stated they were “someone surprised by the English move and they themselves think it’s posturing.”
      (http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2012/pc/pod-v-14091225m45ssportatseven-pid0-1557912_audio.mp3)

      On the Sept. 18 Sport at 7, O’Meara interviewed Brendan Fanning and noted that the French were “not necessarily interested in a breakaway” and that they’d been “left in the dark somewhat” by the PRL’s decision.
      (http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2012/pc/pod-v-18091225m21ssportat7-pid0-1521240_audio.mp3)

      Aaand on the Sept. 19 edition of Rugby on Off the Ball (newstalk.ie), Gerry Thornley had been at the meeting. He reports that Patrick Wolff of Ligue Nationale Rugby kept talking about French dedication to a Euro-wide competition: “They keep reiterating that they want a European cup, and they want to play against the Celts; they want more semifinals like Clermont and Leinster, and they want to play against the English as well. So all the talk of an Anglo-French axis or an Anglo-French breakaway has very much been in the Anglo media and from Mark McCafferty and the English club owners; it hasn’t come from France at all.”
      (http://media.newstalk.ie/mediamanager/download/audio/67151/_rugby_on_off_the_ball_19_september_67151.mp3)

  6. toro toro

     /  September 18, 2012

    I would TOTALLY watch Bayonne v. Exeter. But then, I’m living in Exeter.

    Playoffs are a good idea as a response to the “competitiveness” argument, but in practice a non-runner; the main concern the French clubs have is to reduce the length of the season from what it currently runs to; home-and-away play-offs (neutral grounds wouldn’t work; it’s hard enough trying to get people to go to the Amlin final…) would be the very last thing they’d agree to…

    • Yup. With all the talk about Anglo-French alliances, it is often forgotten that the interests of the two are very different. The English want more money, the French want less games. The French (supporters and media) love the Hash Cup and I don’t see the league blindly following McCafferty’s bluff.
      Any right minded rugby fan can see the merits both in merit qualification and in ensuring representation from all countries. You would hope the blazers that be can also accept that la verite reste au milieu and find a solution that keeps everyone (except McCafferty happy). There are various formulas for realising this but the French will definitely not want to be involved in play-offs. There would still be scope for some inventive play off system in the Pro12 though – e.g. top 4/5/6 qualify plus play-offs between the top/next teams from each country. Top 4? qualify plus top team from each country.

      • Redhanded

         /  September 19, 2012

        HEC play-offs could be run on the same weekends as the AP/T14/Pro12 play-offs as the teams in the HEC play-offs wouldn’t be involved in the league play-offs.

        As an example, the highest ranked non-qualifying team from the AP and T14 and the two highest ranked non-qualifying teams from the Pro12 (given the Pro12 will be the countries giving up places) A draw to decide who plays who, then home-and-away over 2 weekends with the 2 winners going through to the HEC.

        As this would be happening after the regular season, the AP and T14 teams would have no relegation worries either.

        The AP say the HEC should be about the best. No better place to decide this than on the pitch.

  7. Redhanded

     /  September 19, 2012

    The French really want the T14 play-offs to be uninterrupted by the HEC final and this could be accommodated by moving the HEC final back 1 or 2 weeks. I don’t see this being a show-stopper as it could be accommodated by shuffling around HEC and domestic league weekends.

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