In the midst of the latest rounds of the Heineken Cup it seems certain that, whilst it will continue next season it will not involve the clubs from the English Premiership.
The history of the dispute is well documented, not least by me on these pages – what is less certain are the overall implications for the competition itself and the English clubs who are currently without European rugby to look forward to. There is also the vexed question regarding TV rights and coverage.
There has been palpable delight shown in the comments on various sports and rugby sites from supposed rugby supporters who are overjoyed that the English clubs have been excluded. The vitriolic and smug responses seem to be primarily from blokes whose surnames are pre-fixed by O’ and who talk of a hugely satisfactory conclusion to this saga.
I would caution them to temper their euphoria – this is by no means the end of the European rainbow for the Celtic nations.
It is no secret that the French clubs were bullied by their Union into committing for next season’s Heineken and there have been Gallic mutterings that indicate they are not totally enamoured by the new ERC arrangements for the competition – they may yet seek a different arena in the medium term. The Welsh regions (as opposed to the Welsh Union) also seem less than excited by the prospect of a tournament without being able to face their fiercest rivals. Meanwhile the Italian and Scots clubs are simply happy to go along with anything that guarantees income and survival.
The risk for the ERC is that they will be organising and overseeing what is effectively a RaboDirect Pro 12 league bolstered by a few reluctant French clubs.
It is even more uncertain what the English clubs will do next year – there is talk of an extended Premiership, a possible link with clubs in South Africa and even an Anglo-Welsh alignment. But at present that’s all it is – just talk. It seems extremely unlikely that there is time for any of these to come to fruition before September next year – until now they have been focussing on plans for an Anglo-French based competition – one that has now been kyboshed by the French Rugby Federation.
What is virtually a given is that the English clubs will never compete in a tournament that is under the auspices of ERC. This is despite the ERC claiming to have addressed the concerns expressed by the English and French clubs which caused the split in the first place. Whilst it is true that some efforts have been made regarding meritocratic qualification and revenue distribution – ERC have retained the voting system which allows the Celtic nations to outvote England and France on any future (and presumably retrospective) decisions.
ERC may well have been under the impression that the English clubs would capitulate as soon as the French were herded back into their fold – if so they were in for a bit of a shock when the Premiership clubs voted “No” on Thursday.
Which brings us to the thorny question of TV rights – and more especially revenue.
Sky TV have indicated that they are comfortable with the new ERC plan and are not concerned by the absence of the English teams.
Behind closed doors however I expect that they are unlikely to be so sanguine. Sky Sports have had a bad year – they lost premiership rugby to BT – they also lost a lot of Premiership football matches and most worryingly BT also snatched the European Champions League. In the future if you want to watch Man U v Bayern Munich or Arsenal v Barcelona you won’t be tuning to any of the Sky Sport channels.
Sky are under pressure and BT are fast looking to take over the mantle of being ‘The Sports Channel’ As an aside the BT coverage of rugby has been fresh and creative – both on match day and in the mid- week round ups. Rugby enthusiasts have lost absolutely nothing by switching channels (except the £12 a month subscription obviously) – like me I imagine they will feel it is well worth it.
Sky have had the Lions tours for many years – the question is will they have the 2017 tour to New Zealand?
It is probable that next year Sky will lose viewers by the shedload for the Heineken Cup when English Clubs are not included. This is not bravado – the vast majority of their sports subscriptions come from England.
If viewers fall, ad revenue will follow – and how long before being able to watch English club rugby only on BT brings about churn in Sky subscriptions? Sky may be relaxed in public – but I think below the surface they will be paddling like crazy.
ERC seem to be chuffed at the current outcome and the fact that they have punched the English clubs on the nose (if only metaphorically) – but they may well find their gravy train becomes stuck in the station as early as World Cup year.
Winning a battle is important but it isn’t the end of the war by any means.