HEC Future: The Unions

While the English and French clubs are imposing their agenda on the Celts/Italians, in theory they could be stopped immediately by their respective unions. While club rugby increasingly holds the aces in both countries (a process that has naturally gathered pace since professionalism), the unions are still in charge, on paper anyway. They have a few options available to kill the BT Sport Benjamins Cup – the nuclear one being a ban on international rugger for players who participate – something like the upshot from Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in the 1970s. With the reverberations from cricket’s civil war still fresh over 30 years later, that’s unlikely, but it still means the clubs need at least to pay lip service to the unions views.

So what are they?

England: The English union and its clubs have been in a seemingly constant state of warfare since the beginning of the noughties, but have settled on a weary truce, for now anyway. We have no doubt the old farts of the RFU take a very dim view of the brash posturing of the likes of McCafferty, and would be wary of the fact that any BT Sport deal might leave the clubs self-sufficient and money-hungry enough to risk a full breakaway, soccer Premiership style, but the reality seems to be they aren’t going to stand in their way. The union don’t have the stomach for the fight, and you sense their biggest fear is picking a fight with PR and losing. Chance of intervention: low

France: the incoming French rugger president is none other than president of Biarritz and all-time great, Serge Blanco. Blanco might rail at the likes of Boudjellal and Lorenzetti for throwing cash around like confetti, but that’s with his Basque hat on – he’d do the same if he could. He’s a long-standing club man, and won’t do anything they don’t want him to. Whereas in England the union and the clubs are at cross-purposes, in France the union is there for the clubs – the semi-serious attitude to professionalism right from the 1920s being an example. Don’t forget – what the French clubs really want is a Top16 – a slimmed-down European competition suits that long view. Chances of intervention: nil

What then of the Celtalians? The unions there could possibly get involved more to save the current HEC setup – their nuclear option is pulling out of Six Nations TV deals (or the tournament itself if it came to it) which would get the RFU’s attention, who then might get talking to PR. For that, they would need a united front and the will to push hard, and neither seems a possibility.

Wales: the WRU have never really bought into the HEC – the regions still seem somehow temporary and the clubs all look across the Severn longingly. Cardiff and Newport aren’t really too bothered about losing to Leinster, but if it were Bristol or Bath? What the WRU wants is more games against the English – that bargaining chip is easy for McCafferty and co to throw at them – an extra round in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, say, for their support. Saracens’ chummy owner Mr. Wray was yesterday seen to be making ‘come hither noises at the Welsh.  He wouldn’t do the same to the Scottish or Irish, but with the Welsh he knows there’s a better chance they’ll come into the parlour.  It’s pretty hard to see the Welsh resisting English advances, and a Welsh-Anglo-French competition might actually be viable, unlike an Anglo-French one. Verdict: Lundy

Ireland: At Lansdowne Road, they care about the Six Nations. Professional rugby tournaments have yet to fully get into the IRFU’s conciousness, with RWC tournaments virtually ignored as milestones and the HEC observed with baleful eyes – it’s fine if it gets a few extra quid, but we don’t want the provinces being able to stand on their own two feet. Still, the prospect of only two of the provinces being involved in Europe’s central competition will make them sit up. While Munster and Ulster will fill their stadia (and Leinster the Palindrome) for the visits of Leicester and Toulouse, would they be equally as keen for Bayonne and Bath in the Amlin Mark II? They will want all three big Irish provinces regularly involved in Europe’s premier competition – if the English can offer enough cash that they can invest in some players to ensure that the qualification criteria can regularly be met by all three they might be happy. A conservative organisation, they won’t be putting themselves, or the Six Nations, on the chopping block to thwart PR and their big bucks. Verdict: Don’t rock the boat

Scotland: The SRU are the IRFU in kilts and sporrans – the two were the last holdouts when the game went open and have at times made the RFU look dynamic and nimble. Investment in Glasgae and Embra has been gradual but solid – and since the pair don’t attract massive crowds whatever the opposition, it’s always been the national team that pays the way. The SRU is likely to take the path of least resistance, like the IRFU, and with no significant support for holding the fort, simply won’t. Verdict: Glenmorangie all round

Italy: The automatic qualification of Zebre prior to their existence is Exhibit A in the argument for a new European structure. The FIR could wind up Aironi, playing out their political wranglings, knowing that they had two guaranteed places. Recall as well that Treviso, the best Italian club by miles, weren’t even a choice for one of the two Rabo franchises, as the union chased the dream of a Roman team. FIR have been like the French in their historical approach to paying players, and it’s pretty unlikely they will stand in the way of some extra cash. For the rest of us, having only one automatic Italian qualifier might focus the minds a little on the setup of the second Rabo franchise (if indeed the Rabo continues in its present form – remember the Italians currently have to pay to play – maybe this will be a bargaining chip for them). Verdict: Rumbled

If the Celtalians are to make a stand for the existing ERC, the minimum they need is a united front, iron will and some political cunning to out-manoeuvre PR. Given the Welsh look wavering material and Leinster are already pushing towards whatever competition comes into existence, it increasingly seems that the HEC, in its current form, is doomed.



  1. Michael Robinson

     /  September 18, 2013

    With RWC 2015 coming up, the last thing the RFU will want to do is pick a fight with PRL, unless they think that PRL’s antics will have a negative impact on the RWC.

  2. Amiga500

     /  September 18, 2013

    Dunno guys, I think this is a bit pessimistic.

    Reports today that the RFU have told the PRL in no uncertain terms – no competition. Same with the FFR.

    The danger to the RFU and FFR in all this is they could become an irrelevance. They know full well if they let the clubs advance this agenda, they become little more than puppets.

  3. I think (hope might be a better word actually) the unions are slowly starting to realize that if they concede ground here, then Rugby starts along the slippery slope of club games becoming more important than Internationals.

    It is one of the most important components of why I adore Rugby so much – the sheer unadulterated joy and pride players have when they pull on their nations jersey. It’s the absolute pinnacle and I really fear for the game if the club game starts to take precedence, which frankly is where this looks like it’s going if the English and French clubs get their way here.

    Time for those within the respective Unions to find their backbone and start laying down some “You shall not pass” markers! I’ve said in previous blog comments that I have no problem with some of the proposals but the key is that it MUST be the Unions that have final say, and whatever governing body oversees it all is run with a Union majority.

    There’s a spirit/integrity to the game principle here that club owners can’t uphold to the same degree as the Unions due to interest in profit, and should therefore not be allowed to have a controlling interest in it.

  4. lumpy

     /  September 18, 2013

    The IRB are waiting.

    Player, coach, doctor, physio bans from all IRB competititons beyond franglo 14 (or whatever it might be called) will be used if necessary. The only non-IRB competitions I’m aware of at this stage are the Top 14 and PRL so it would be a pretty limited career and not one any normal player would choose before hitting their mid-30s a la Wilkinson. What sane union player would really give up the chance of playing in the european cup, the super 15, the 4 nations, the world cup, the 6 nations and the olympics?

    Imo the European cup will be in place next year no doubt.

    What’s most laughable is that there is still no proposed alternative or qualification format as the french and english don’t want to present it until they have some of the other 4 unions on board. They know it will look like a crap competition. 6 pools of english and french teams will be boring, even to french and englishmen.

    The chances of the Welsh, Scots and Italians jumping ship are seriously diminished by each of their union’s reliance on money down from the international game. Regardless of what gates newport might pick up against bath, Wales can’t survive for even a season if the millenium stadium is empty in November, February and March. Ditto for Scotland and Italy. Less so but only slightly for the Irish provinces.

    Either way, the IRB will flex their muscle if it comes to it. The Heineken cup is far from doomed.

    • Scrumdog

       /  September 25, 2013

      I agree with you. The IRB consists of delegates from the various Unions and Gosper has already issued a statement saying that the IRB supports the current competition and the ERC. The FFR and IRFU have followed suit.The Unions will not let the ‘tail wag the dog’.
      The Heineken Cup can be improved with some of the suggestions from the PRL/LNR but the TV contracts are what’s central to the dispute and the BT contract was arranged behind the backs of the ERC while a contract existed that they were all committed to at the time, sounds like ‘breach of contract’ somewhere along the line. Who is going to sponsor this ‘breakaway league’ of French and English clubs who could find their players banned from 6N and a new 4N will start up? The PRL/LNR have placed nothing on the table other than bluster, no details…seems like the plan was put together after a night getting hammered!
      This is what happens when private corporations/businessmen own the clubs..they have no feel for the game, its all about the money and they are targeting for power and control of the money and competitions, nothing less and it will never be enough. Players would be treated like meat and sold /traded and have even less a playing lifespan as every last centime/penny will be extracted from their bodies. My guess is that it will go to the lawyers and the rugby stakeholders (us) are in for a rough ride.

      Who will the first Union be to break the line and ‘Welsh’ on the ERC set up?

  5. Stevo

     /  September 18, 2013

    There’s a difference between the soccer and rugby situations in that BT Sport’s involvement in the game may see an increase in audiences and revenue, but not nearly to the extent that Sky’s did in football. Rugby has been getting the Sky treatment for a decade and a half, it’s not the under-developed resource that league football was in England in the early 90s. BT Sport’s investment in rugby is driven out of a need to compete with Sky. The sustainability of that is questionable, and we may even be dealing with a bread-wars situation where competitors are willing to undercut their own bottom line in order to force the opposition out of the fight. As such the international game remains hugely important to rugby in a way that international football hasn’t, leaving plenty of power in the hands of the unions.

    • Amiga500

       /  September 18, 2013

      It’ll turn out like ITV Digital just over a decade years on and with rugby instead of soccer caught in the storm…

      McCafferty is such a stupid bastard on so many levels. It beggars believe that the clubs (a)appointed him and (b)are following his line.

      • Amiga500

         /  September 18, 2013

        D’oh. “decade years” = decade or 10 years…

        take your pick 🙂

      • abitofshoepie

         /  September 18, 2013

        Yeah, you should forward that ITV digital scenario to McClownerty. To my simple mind the real battle here is between Sky and BT, rugby is a minor consideration for these guys. The Sky core business is TV but they are now selling broadband as an add-on and so eating into BTs core market. BT have responded by offering free sports to people who use their broadband, so attacking Sky’s core market. Increased competition will push up rugby tv deals in the short run, but pissing off the other nations isn’t the ideal way of hedging your bets just in case it does go belly up. TV deals follow competitions, the other way around is not sustainable.

        • BT aren’t trying to eat into Sky’s TV business, they’re trying to use free sports channels to protect their own broadband business. Early indicators (>95% of first BT Premier league game viewership came through TalkTalk Virgin Setanta packages i.e. not BT broadband customers) are not good.
          You have to wonder what the Premiership Rugby deal with BT contains that is so explosive that they haven’t even shown it to the RFU, and even more amazingly it hasn’t been leaked?
          An exit-clause for BT in the event of exclusive European coverage not being delivered, perchance?

          • abitofshoepie

             /  September 18, 2013

            Yep, it does seem strange that the content of the much heralded tv deal they have with BT seems to be such a secret. Maybe the Premiership clubs are protecting themselves against a legal challenge or a weakening of their negotiating hand. Then again non disclosure clauses are pretty common in commercial agreements.

  6. Connachtexile

     /  September 18, 2013

    ‘Celtalians’ – love it.

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