Damn! We’re in a Tight Spot

In the Coen Brothers’ oddball classic O Brother Where Art Thou, when George Clooney’s character finds himself surrounded by enemies with machine guns who are setting about torching the barn he’s stuck inside, all he can bring himself to do is to repeat ‘Damn! We’re in a tight spot’ over and over.  It’s a denoument similar to the fate of the Heineken Cup’s immediate future.  It’s in a very, very tight spot indeed, and it’s getting to the point where it’s conceivable that the episode won’t have a happy ending. The potential for ruinous consequences is great indeed.

When this saga first kicked off, the noises coming out of the English and French camps were about meritocratic qualification for the tournament from the Pro12.  Initially, we had some sympathy with their plight, but since then, any goodwill towards the Premiership clubs has been impossible to dredge up such has been the arrogant manner in which they have gone about their business.  When soulless franchises like Saracens, who have offered virtually nothing to the Heineken Cup over its lifetime, are talking with such a sense of entitlement to a greater share of the profits the tournament generates, it’s pretty clear this isn’t really about qualification rules at all, but is about cold, hard dollars.

While next to nothing has been revealed about the goings on in the meetings between the various stakeholders, it appears that the Pro12 have had to concede on qualification rules, and some form of merit-based order has been pencilled in.  The biggest stumbling block, it seems, is the conflict between the two mutually exclusive TV deals that have been signed; the Premiership clubs’ landmark BT deal and the ERC’s extension of the current deal with Sky.  The two can’t co-exist, and either one or other of the parties performs the mother of all climbdowns or this one will have to be settled by highly paid lawyers, who look like being the only real winners in the whole sorry saga.

The third possible outcome is that no agreement is reached at all, and it’s looking like a real possibility, one that the IRFU, as well as everyone else, will have to budget for.  Saracens’ chairman, the loveable Nigel Wray said this week that while he hopes there is no ‘hiatus’ in the Heineken Cup, he thinks there will be.  Ouch.  Can it really come to pass that the world’s most exciting rugby tournament will be sabotaged by the very powers that want to dominate it?  Worryingly, yes.  The threat, Wray says, has to be real or else the changes the English clubs want, will never be made. It’s a game of high stakes poker.

The Heineken Cup has always been a curious competition; a mix of clubs and franchises of unions, each with differently aligned goals and priorities, at times it has been almost stuck together with sellotape. But no other rugby tournament has caught the imagination so vividly.  No other provides such variety, and the quirks of the format – rubbish seeding rules and scheduling of matches in mini-blocks – while they can appear unfair, really only add to the sense of excitement.  It has been the lifeblood of Irish rugby in the last decade, opening the game up to a new audience.  The idea that perhaps it won’t exist next season is almost too awful to contemplate, not least from a financial perspective for the IRFU.

Indeed, of all the stakeholders, it’s the IRFU that surely has the most to lose. The Welsh franchises are a sideshow to the national team, and have yet to catch fire in any event; plus they have the Anglo-Welsh cup as something to fill out the calendar. The Scottish teams rarely impact in the Heiny, but have tended to save their best for the league. They’d be able to muddle through. But for the cashflow generated by sold out matches in Ravenhill, the RDS and Thomond Park that would be more or less guaranteed in any other year, as well as the potential for lucrative home knockout matches, to be taken from underneath them, would be a disaster for the IRFU.

Put simply, what would the unions do to fill the calendar?  How would the provinces sell greatly devalued season tickets to their support base?  How would they attract the quality foreign players that the provinces need to fill gaps in their talent pool?  Hard to believe it, but these are questions which the IRFU may have to start thinking about in the next twelve months.

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42 Comments

  1. mikerob

     /  September 9, 2013

    The French are the key, really. If the French and the English leave, the HEC is dead. If the French decide to stick with the HEC and the English are isolated, the competition could still be run. I’d expect the English to return after a year or so, possibly after McCafferty, the head of PRL, gets the heave ho for not delivering anything other than a loss of European revenue.

    I can see the Pro12 countries trying to cobble together some sort of “Celtic Cup mark 2” to fill up the fixture list.

  2. Shelflife68

     /  September 9, 2013

    Dont forget Connacht WOC, the HC has breathed life back into a near corpse and given us a serious life line.it would be a huge blow if there was no HC or even Amlin out west.

    Can the Premiership survive without the HC? there are only 3 or 4 solvent clubs in the game and with no european rugby the BT is dead in the water as well, so where will the salvation for the other 8 clubs come from?

    Sad to say that the goose that lays the golden egg may well be killed and all the clubs will suffer.

    • Thanks Shelflife – the Connacht Heineken Cup cashflows wouldn’t be ‘guaranteed’ in the same way as the others we were referring to for obvious reasons, but this is their third year in a row in the tournament, and it’s been a great boost to the game out West.

  3. Len

     /  September 9, 2013

    The other worrying potential would be mass exodus of Ireland’s best players to the premiership, top 14 and further a field in search of quality opposition. Worst case scenario could see Irish provences reduced to their pre HC standings. Could any of the Irish provences hope to hold on to players like O’Brien, Murray or Henry without the HC? I don’t think a Pro 12 cup would cut it.

  4. It would indeed be a tough blow to the Irish provinces if the European Cup were to go, but, as I understand the IRFU budget process they only presume 1 quarter final a year so the lost income wouldn’t be *that* significant. 3 x 3 home games plus 1 QF prize money (it’s a hole alright, but not as much as you might think).

    From a Leinster season ticket point of view, I’d be very disappointed to lose out on these games, they are the glamour fixtures in the calendar. But I really think the standard of the Pro 12 has been improving exponentially over the last 2 – 3 seasons and if it meant that there was a cup competition with our Celtic cousins, I wouldn’t be too disheartened by that.

    Interesting times ahead and I hope it can be saved but I would hate for the Pro 12 nations to concede to the English Premiership clubs who seem to think they have a divine right to enforce their decisions on everyone else. The Top 14 seem to be actually trying to come to an agreement…

    That guy McCafferty is a clown, but a very dangerous and powerful clown.

  5. What I want to know is even if the European competitions were saved what would happen to the purported qualification changes should the Italians leave the Pro12?

    I don’t think it’s likely to happen (the Italians leaving, I can totally believe someone will be stupid to push the big red button marked “do not push”) but the Italians are not 100% happy with the current set up.

    The Pro12 is largely a marriage of convenience for the various unions but it seems to live on a moving plate. In fact, the qualification changes might make the Pro12 more stable because the league will have to work together more, and hence it would be easier to sell to the next sponsor, but if Italy did pull out, then that’s Jenga. Throughout Europe.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 9, 2013

      From those I know involved in rugby in Italy, the franchises are more concerned about the Pro12 right now. Zebre would benefit from not being in the Heineken Cup IMO…and I think the Heineken Cup would benefit from Zebre not being there. Give their place to the moany poms.

      Even the Scottish and Welsh teams only seem to have resources for an either/or approach to the Pro12 and Heineken Cup. Hopefully sense prevails.

      • Can either of you two chaps shed a bit of light on Italian rugby’s unhappiness with the Pro12. We’re not overly familiar with the issues, and it’a a potentially interesting topic.

        Thanks!

        • curates_egg

           /  September 9, 2013

          It’s not that they are unhappy with Pro12 but rather that it is their focus…and it is a major preoccupation for them to stay there. I had some good contacts with Aironi (which should never have been scrapped), so my knowledge is more from there. However, I would think Zebre would be better placed by trying to get their act sorted out in the Pro12 (if it could be financially sufficient), rather than wasting time and resources in the H-Cup. With Aironi, their turnout for good Pro12 matches was similar to H Cup.

        • mikerob

           /  September 9, 2013

          As I understand it, the Italian teams were admitted to the Pro12 on a 4 year trial basis and the FIR had to pay the league EUR 3M a year. If the Italian teams become permanent, they don’t want to have to pay to take part.

  6. Leinsterlion

     /  September 9, 2013

    We should ignore the English, go all in with the French and some Currie Cup teams/Kings, Pampas XV. The Saffas would be amenable for the extra revenue and a place to park the Kings for the year, and the timezones are the same. A year of Anglo Welsh cup boredom and recurrent scenes of Andy Goode dueling with fans over the last pie at half time should have the English scurrying back with their tails between their legs.

    Realistically I think the Pro 12 sides are going have to tighten their collective belts (or string in the case of the Welsh and Scottish teams) and take it on the chin and let this grievance fester until the next round of negotiations. It appears we need them more than they need us.

  7. Keith

     /  September 9, 2013

    If Wray is coming out publicly to say that the English Clubs have to be prepared to push the big red button, then it sounds to me like they are currently not getting any joy in the ongoing discussions. Maybe the Celtic nations are doing a bang up job in the negotiations. If the English are isolated, then they lose all the power, so the French are key. Get them on board and the HC is safe. The English out for a year could also solve the BT issue (no matches no rights).

  8. It’s worth remembering that there are two separate English stakeholders in the ERC, Premiership Rugby and the RFU, similarly the FFR and the Top14 are separately represented. So it’s not really precise to say the “English” and “French” are causing the problem, it’s the two sets of club representatives. The RFU and FFR have, I think, been more conciliatory.

    The HEC countries all have two votes, but for Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy their unions have both votes, while in England and France their unions have one vote and their leagues the other. This weakens the clubs’ stance.

    The RFU and the English clubs, in particular, have had many a falling out, and I don’t think they have anything like a united front on this issue. It’s entirely possible when push comes to shove the RFU will see the end of the HEC as detrimental to rugby development in their country and will refuse to back the clubs.

    Of course, for all the insistence that the Pro12 be the standard for qualification for the HEC it’s telling that Premiership Rugby and the Top 14 have votes, but the Pro12 do not.

    • Thanks for posting this up here ummm, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so clearly explained before.

      • mikerob

         /  September 9, 2013

        I don’t think this is correct. ERC Ltd has equal shareholding amongst the 6 participating unions, but voting rights are broadly based upon the number of teams each country provides to ERC competitions. I believe there are 18 votes: 5 each for England and France and 2 each for the 4 Pro12 unions. The FFR have ceded 4/5 votes to the French pro club organisation (LNR), the RFU have ceded 2.5/5 votes to the English pro club organisation (PRL), the WRU have ceded 1/2 votes to the Welsh pro club organisation (RRW). I believe the FIR had ceded their votes to the Italian pro clubs, but after the FIR had to step in to sort out the Aironi and replace them with Zebre, the FIR may have taken back one or both of their votes. The SRU and IRFU have held on to their votes.

        • I don’t know who told you that one Mike, surely if the English/French had a majority in voting the HEC would have been hijacked years ago?

          Anyway, except for you stating that the Welsh regions have a vote, you’re quite a bit off:

          France Jean-Pierre Lux (ERC Chairman)
          France Michel Palmié (FFR) René Bouscatel (LNR)
          England Rob Andrew (RFU) Peter Wheeler (Premiership Rugby)
          Ireland Peter Boyle (IRFU) Philip Browne (IRFU)
          Italy Andrea Rinaldo (FIR) Fabrizio Gaetaniello (FIR)
          Scotland Mark Dodson (Scottish Rugby) Ian McLauchlan (Scottish Rugby)
          Wales Roger Lewis (WRU) Stuart Gallacher (RRW)

          http://www.ercrugby.com/eng/structure/index.php

          (Before anyone goes off on one about how the chairman’s French, he’s been very vocal this week in the press about how unreasonable the French and English are being, he knows which side his bread is buttered)

          • Sublime

             /  September 10, 2013

            I just don’t understand what the English Rugby League were thinking of when they signed this deal with BT. Were they expecing the rest of the nations to jump ship as well?

          • mikerob

             /  September 11, 2013

            The directors reflect the shareholding of ERC Ltd and this is split equally across the 6 unions, so the English, French and Welsh unions have delegated a director position to the pro clubs. However it isn’t “one man one vote”. The English and French have more votes than the others.

            This is quite normal in corporations – shareholding and voting rights for decisions are not the same thing.

  9. Mike

     /  September 9, 2013

    Whilst i’d be sad to see it go, the end of the HC might be a blessing in disguise. The Rabo would become the focus for everybody. Crowds would go up, and Sky would probably fully invest in it (reinvesting the HC money). It probably wouldn’t take long for the Rabo to overtake the Aviva.

    More franchises could also be considered. Portugal/Spain/Romania? Hows about New York, or even a cheeky attempt to get London Irish involved?

    If the HC goes its pretty shit for everybody, but imo the Rabo teams will be least effected.

    • Sorry to rain on the parade Mike, but most of that sounds fanciful in the extreme. Just beause there’s nothing better on doesn’t mean the Rabo will suddenly spike in popularity, although I suppose you’ll see more of the first team players turn out for it, because there’ll be nothing to rest them for. As for Spain, Portugal and New York, I caanot see in a month of sundays how they could add anything meaningful to the competition. It’s a complete non-starter.

  10. Mike

     /  September 9, 2013

    New York etc is fanciful alright, but the Rabo growing on the back of the HC collapse isn’t.

    The problem is that the Rabo is stuck in no-mans land. Its halfway between the Aviva and the Anglo Welsh. When its good, especially around Christmas, its very good. All the local derbies and a good holiday turnout. There is no reason why it cant be like that more often.

    Sky won’t fully invest whilst its a half way house, but if the HC went, we would see a lot more 1st teams playing and if there are only 1 or two to the big games on TV, this will force people to actually turn up to watch their team.

    The other thing is that if Sky did get involved, the hype machine and their production has a good habit of making things good. Look at what they did to darts etc…

  11. Len

     /  September 9, 2013

    I’d imagine if the HC was to cease to be that sky would probably pump some of the money back into premiership coverage in an attempt to increase viewers. They might even look at the top 14 but I’d imagine pro 12 coverage would remain the same. Numbers wise the premiership and top 14 have much more potential viewers than the pro 12.

  12. Yossarian

     /  September 9, 2013

    We can look for potential light at the end of the tunnel but if the H-Cup goes Irish Rugby will suffer more than any of the other stake holders.The growth in popularity of the game in Ireland has been huge.The Top 14 captures the French rugby publics hearts.The Scots/Italians have never featured with any consistency to grab the publics attention. The Welsh have never got behind the franchises, struggling to get over their old club rivalries and English rugby has the wealth/numbers to survive without it.
    Scope for a 6/7 team national league with the top AIL teams being built up into franchises with central contracts/academy places?undo’s all the good work of the Provinces till now. The French may welcome us into some format(well 3/4) but really can’t see a way Ireland can win out if we lose the H-Cup.

    Taking the 8-8-8 split being proposed and hope for a more competitive Rabo might be our best outcome. The competition loses its initial purpose if we only had 1 scotish team and no italians.(a long way from the dream of having a Romanian team in it) But it looks like its money talking and not the ideals of the competitions founders.

  13. Scrumdog

     /  September 9, 2013

    There has been talk/rumblings over the past couple of years of a professional rugby franchise starting up on the east coast of the USA. To establish a team obviously takes financial backing, and where there’s billionaires there’s a way to open the doors to access the PRO12. Think of the huge market potential in the USA where there’s a quarter of a million rugby players..and growing!.
    Possibly an American-Canadian franchise to begin with could provide two full rosters of players who could compete at Pro12 and the eventual re-establishment of the Heineken Cup or…. er..the new Budweiser Cup! This may be the way to make up for lost Heineken revenue over time, Let the English and French slug it out together year after year after year….where there’s a will there’s a way!

  14. Mary Hinge

     /  September 9, 2013

    Still think next year’s HEC will feature 7 English clubs, 7 French clubs, and the top 8 from the Rabo with the highest finishing club from each one of the participating nations in the Rabo and then the next top 4 finishing clubs, plus last year’s HEC winner and last year’s Amlin winner or if already qualified the next highest finishing club from that country.

  15. Alex

     /  September 9, 2013

    Frankly, would have no problem with the 6+6+6+HEC & Amlin winner format.

    If I’m honest, sides like Zebre, Edinburgh and Cardiff shouldn’t have an inbuilt advantage over Exeter or Gloucester and the HEC would likely become more competitive as a result.

    That said, and to echo the OP, I don’t think this was ever about fairness. Big question for me is not whether we can persuade the French clubs to stay on board but what they stand to gain from following the English out the door.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 10, 2013

      “sides like Zebre, Edinburgh and Cardiff” – you mean Edinburgh (semi-finalists 2012) and Cardiff (quarter-finalists 2012)? The problem is they can only give one competition a proper lash (as Edinburgh showed that season).

      Zebre should not be in the Heineken Cup. It would do the outfit good to focus on the Pro12…and developing an actual team with a support base, which it has yet to do (woeful attendance at games).

  16. don_cherrys_conscience

     /  September 9, 2013

    WoC,

    As you wrote back on June 10 –

    “Munster have never really marketed the Rabo as a desirable product to its fans. In the past the team has almost been happy to use dreadful performances in the league as a means of playing possum, before dialling up the intensity in the only cup that matters to them.”

    From a purely objective standpoint, Munster should have never been allowed to get away with this for so long. Yes, the television deals are a factor….so is the idea of making league finishes a part of qualification going forward, which is what the English and French clubs are requesting in a list of demands.

    I look at Biarritz, who have lost in the Heineken Cup Finals twice over the last eight years, but are now being outspent domestically by Toulon, Clermont, Racing, etc. Should they right the ship, why should they have a harder path to qualify and share in the revenues than Munster, who has no worries about regulation?

  17. don_cherrys_conscience

     /  September 9, 2013

    Sorry, meant to write…relegation.

  18. Shelflife

     /  September 9, 2013

    There’s no doubt that the competition which initially started to spread the rugby gospel across Europe is a victim of its own success. It has become the champions league of rugby and attracted money and viewing success beyond its dreams.

    There is merit in adopting a meritocracy based qualification method which will give more bite to the rabo and if done correctly could breathe life back into the amlin as well.

    The current situation is fraught with danger as there are balls on the table now, we could end up with a situation where everyone loses and the golden goose could die.

    I done think that the prem lge is as solvent as people think, there are perhaps 4-6 clubs making money/breaking even and the rest are in the red, with no HC at all this could be the death knell for plenty of clubs in each lge bar france.

    Sad to say the frightening thing is some of the men at the negotiating table may not be the smartest and wont know when to back down, its only when they are singing falsetto with feathers in their mouths that they will realise that its too late.

  19. zdm

     /  September 10, 2013

    Is there any chance that this is all smoke and mirrors?

    The Dark Lords of English Rugby have shown that there is money to be made out of all this European rugby lark and the way I see it (acknowledging that this theory is based on no inside knowledge unless you count the inside of my own head), the only “stake holder” with an un-severable link to the Heiny is the ERC – a rump organisation created to run the competition.

    What’s to stop the collective organisations involved in European rugby from running the ERC and its competition in to the ground and then creating a “new” organisation with a “new” competition?

    • Amiga500

       /  September 10, 2013

      The national unions and the IRB.

      • zdm

         /  September 10, 2013

        Why would they though?

        The BT deal that the English have signed offers them significantly more than the current portion of the ERC deal and serves as an example of the money available to the clubs/regions/provinces and given that the Pro12 teams are all dependencies of their unions and more or less funded by their unions, why would they not consider an option that gives them a bigger wad?

        The IRB I could buy in to from an integrity point of view and I’m not advocating that the European unions actually follow this plan but the path of least resistance from where we are now is for the English & French to declare the current format unworkable and storm off in a huff while the Celtic nations and the Italians play out the HC as a Celtic Cup Plus for a season and then agree that a new tournament is required for the good of the game.

        • Amiga500

           /  September 12, 2013

          *shakes head at those that would grab a quick buck without thought to the long term consequences*

          What happened ITV Digital again?

          How did that leave the respective soccer clubs?

  20. I really think the powers that be are missing a trick here. For all the talk of a crowded fixture list and little down time for players it’s worth remembering that this only applies to the players who make the play-offs and then travel with their national sides.

    Before this week a large portion of players from Connacht and Zebre last played a competitive rugby game in May. Why has no one who bangs the meritocracy drum thought to suggest play-offs for HEC places among the 3rd and 4th seeded teams? The fact is if you’re in the Pro12/Top14/AP play-offs then you’re in the HEC the following year, while the teams below, kicking their heels watching others extend their season, aren’t. Or at least shouldn’t be until they’ve done something to earn it.

    This would give fans of teams already out of the running domestically something to enjoy as well, and add a bit of excitement to what was otherwise a season that just petered out.

    • lopez12

       /  September 10, 2013

      Or if I may make another suggestion, which appears somewhat to logical and simplistic to work. Feel free to dismantle as you see fit!

      Why not just expand the comp to 32 teams, provide the bulk of additional places to Eng/Fr and maybe one or two to either Rabo/developing national teams. Only pool winners go through.
      Pros
      – No extra games for competing teams
      – Gives the Eng/Fr clubs what they are looking for without negatively impacting Rabo sides
      – Widens the scope of the tournament including potentially allowing Georgia/Spain etc enter their national sides.
      Cons
      – Potentially lot more dead rubbers & bit more “filler” in the pools to be hockeyed.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 10, 2013

      You should send in your CV to Pro12 and ERC!

    • Paddy

       /  September 10, 2013

      Not really…. thats been their position along. There’s a meeting of the ERC board tomorrow…shits just getting thrown around!

  21. Yossarian

     /  September 10, 2013

    I often wondered why we got rid of the old “inter pro” title. The provinces play each other twice in the Rabo anyway.Those results could have been used to make a side table and would have added extra spice to the fixtures. Slightly off topic but we may be looking for a new competition to cling to very soon!

  22. Robrich

     /  September 10, 2013

    I think it is equally catastrophic for the Welsh and Scottish regions. In Wales, without the money it generates the existence of the regions themselves are at risk. Players will be sold and the only success of regionalisation, the incredible academy system will be dismantled. It’s not a massive stretch of the imagination to see the effect this will have on the 6 Nations and ultimately the RWC. A lack of players exposed to the highest class club rugby, with no academy systems and players sporadically scattered through France and England, the future looks bleak in Wales

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