B&I Cup Redux

When we broke up for Christmas (not Palla and I thankfully, you and us), we had reached what seemed like the end of the beginning of the HEC/RCC saga – the old HEC wasn’t coming back but what, if anything, would replace it was unclear. Since then, the already messy scene has tippled over into mayhem with the Welsh regions announcing their intention to stomp their feet up and down if they didn’t get their way opt out of the WRU participation agreement and join with PRL in a 16 team Anglo-Welsh league.

It is often said that Irish rugby is always in a great place even if the team never wins, but Welsh rugby is always in crisis even though they are always winning.  It’s never rung more true.

The WRU responded with a ‘meh’ and swiftly threatened to replace the franchises with, erm, four new, equally makey-uppey ones for the Pro12-Feet-Under – effectively North (never a rugby stronghold), East, West and .. er … Millennium Stadium. Riiiiiiiiight. However, outrage from the clubs and fans (both of them) have resulted in something of a rowback, and the union are working out how to get the genie back in the bottle.

Meanwhile, from what we can piece together, it appears the IRFU and SRU have taken a break from pinching pennies to meet the RFU and WRU for crisis talks – the power grab from PRL and intentional killing of the HEC have resulted in a proposal for a beefed up B&I Cup containing the 12 Premiership and ten Pro-12-Feet-Under sides … to be broadcast by … BT Sport! Heads you lose, tails I win.  We’re not exactly sure what has happened to the Heineken Cup run by the ERC, which all bar the English had apparently agreed to play in, but it appears to once again have fallen apart, presumably because of the Welsh defection.  Or has it?  Eddie O’Sullivan said on the recent Second Captains podcast that they still want to play in the European competition.  Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The PRL (and the Welsh regions) will bugger off on their own if this doesn’t come to pass. A season-long Anglo-Welsh Cup may sound beyond beyond dreadful, and who knows if it is even feasible (what happens when the Dragons get relegated?) but it may be an acceptable position for the English clubs if it is enough to trigger the lovely, lovely money BT Sport will pay them.  They have a powerful card to play to get the RFU to do their bidding – they sort of own the England players and the RFU are hosting the World Cup. If a schism isn’t avoided, England D, led by Luke Narraway, will be humiliated in their home tournament. None of the old farts want that.

[ Aside: unpopular and, on the face of it, pointless competitions might be unappealing for fans and annoying for coaches who have to manage their players’ fitness, but if they bring in money, who cares? Look at the Europa League – fans don’t give a hoot, managers hate the disruption, but TV money means it happens.]

The first thing missing in all of this is the French clubs, who appear to have played a blinder – they’ll probably get what most of them want, a Top16, and the English will get the blame. Mark McCafferty and his army of Stephen Joneses might bemoan the treachery, but he can hardly complain about self-interest when the PRL are interested only in lining their own pockets at the expense of whoever gets in their way.

The second is the Italian sides, and it’s not clear exactly what they’ve done to deserve being isolated like this.  Italy won two matches in the recent Six Nations and its development as a rugby nation should remain a key concern of European rugby. In the 3 seasons they have been in the Pro12, the national side has improved each year – 2 wins and 4th last year tied for their best outcome, and a points difference of -36 was their best ever by far, and shows improving competitiveness.  Besides, if nothing else, their involvement would bring the numbers from an awkward 22 to a more rounded 24.

So how will this impact the provinces? If the Anglo-Welsh contingent break away on their own, it’s terrible news – for everyone.  The Irish will dominate the rump Pro-12-Feet-Under (or should that be Pro8) even more than they currently do, if it even continues to exist. Ireland will correspondingly suffer with their players (those who don’t leave anyway) starved of competitive rugger. It’s a nightmare scenario, no question.  If the compromise B&I Cup happens, they’ll get two home games against reps of Perfidious Albion, which always gets Gerry’s syntax bubbling and fans’ goats up – that’s not as good as a full HEC, but it’s something, and the Pro12 will continue to muddle on.

That’s not to say they should row in behind the tournament on everyone else’s terms, and to date the IRFU have talked a commendable game on the importance of governance of the sport: it’s crucial they continue to uphold this principle.  The Anglo-Welsh fallback position is hardly the best hand to be going up against with issues such as relegation and promotion almost certainly not even given a moment’s thought as yet and for all the English sweet-talking to the Welsh, it’s hard to see what they can really bring to improve the Premiership.  The move looks like it’s designed to decimate the Pro12 more than build anything constructive.

This saga probably has a fair bit of mileage in it yet.  Lucky us.

PS. complaining about Stephen Jones hypocrisy is pointless, but he has really taken the biscuit in this saga. At Lions time, he breaks down in tears at mention of the amateur Corinthian spirit the concept embodies and takes potshots at the likes of Willie John McBride, the greatest Lion of all, for besmirching the idea with nationalism, then morphs into a red in tooth and claw laissez-faire money talks capitalist four-square behind the blood-sucking club owners of PRL. When rugby ends up with odious villains like Vincent Tan or dodgy tyrants like the owners of Manchester City and Chelsea owning the big clubs, we hope he’s happy.