The Heineken ‘Cup Runneth Over’

It is a perilous time for Europe’s premier cup competition  – in the past the biblical phrase has been appropriate but now it may well be that it is about to be’ run over’ or indeed is ‘out of time’

The Heineken Cup has been the biggest club competition in the Northern Hemisphere since it began in 1995 – it is arguably the biggest club competition in the world.

Before all you lovers of Currie and those wanting to hide behind their Shields (including the one that bears my name) get huffy – let’s just look at what it takes to get into the competition – not just win it.

The Heineken involves the leading clubs from 6 countries. As an aside, it’s called the H Cup in France because of the restrictions on alcohol sponsorship! No really – it seems to have worked particularly well for them and ‘Le Binge Drinking’ is on the increase and now has an official term for this habit – ‘beuverie express’.

Anyway, enough of that – the teams have to qualify from their own leagues for the right to play in the competition  – that’s not quite 100% true and is one of the current bones of contention which I’ll explain in a minute (or longer if you’re a slow reader).

24 teams contest the Cup each season.

The Heineken holds most of the world individual attendance records for games between two clubs – the highest being over 80,000 (and that wasn’t even a final!)

Only European soccer has a bigger tournament between individual clubs.

Is it the biggest rugby club competition?  This might make for a decent pub argument but is rather moot at present.

Because, at the moment it doesn’t actually matter all that much since it is in danger of falling apart.

Hard to believe when it is so successful isn’t it? (that’s rhetorical by the way).

As of now the English and French clubs are planning to pull out and to set up their own competition. This follows their announcement last year that they would do so unless there were changes to the format of the tournament which is overseen by the ERC. The announcement gave the required two years notice by the clubs.

The ERC appear to have largely ignored this threatened action presumably regarding it as an Anglo French power play and although they entered into spasmodic negotiations it was never taken that seriously in Dublin.

I imagine it must have come as a bit of a shock to them when the threatened breakaway group then informed the world at large that they’d signed an agreement with BT for the TV broadcast rights to their new tournament – a four year deal worth over £150 million and a significant improvement on the existing arrangement between the ERC and Sky.

BT have already stolen Premiership and Top 14 rugby coverage from Sky in a deal which started last week.

Rather than sitting down to try and sort it out ERC then declared that the new consortium do not have the rights to a European tournament and promptly signed a new 4 year deal with Sky.

I imagine that both BT and Sky are a bit confused – as are the rest of us.

So what has got up the noses of ‘Le Ros Bif’ and their Gallic partners?

The English and French clubs actually have several ‘- bifs’

There is disquiet on both sides of La Manche about what is seen as an unfair allocation of the money, the number of sides involved and the qualification process which they see as being unequal. Moreover they take umbrage at the fact that they can be collectively outvoted by the four other countries who they feel benefit more from the current arrangements.

The money is obviously a key issue for the clubs – the Celtic League teams pick up over half of the revenues with the English and French getting 24% each.

There is also the issue of qualification.

They are unhappy that the English and French system is based purely on final league positions, whilst the same does not apply in the Celtic League. The four Scottish and Italian teams qualify for the Heineken Cup regardless of where they finish in the table and some of the Welsh and Irish sides are guaranteed a place – again irrespective of final league position

The Premier clubs and Ligue Nationale have long called for a system of meritocracy to be introduced for all qualifying teams. They believe the absence of such a system puts them at a disadvantage as they are unable to rest players from league matches in order to keep them fresh for the Heineken. Whilst the Celtic League teams can because they know they will qualify anyway.

So what do each side say about the current situation?

Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, Mark McCafferty, said: “We have had 15 months of discussions which haven’t produced an outcome. There hasn’t been a meeting since May and there has been no urgency over the summer.

“Our clubs have been very strong in saying they need clarity. If we can’t reach an outcome involving all the European clubs, we at least have to set up a competition involving the English and French clubs. If others want to come into that competition then we can look at that, but we have to get on and prepare.”

In contrast the ERC position has been as follows –

 “Despite recent reports, all parties involved in the formulation of a new ERC Accord, including the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) and Premiership Rugby, have reaffirmed their commitment to the process. A meeting focused solely on the negotiations will be convened by ERC as soon as practicable.”

“Surprise was expressed at the timing and content of yesterday’s media announcements by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) and Premiership Rugby, and representatives of both bodies were invited to explain their positions,” the ERC continued. “It was pointed out that there was a range of proposals made by stakeholders, none of which were acceptable to all parties, and it was agreed that the negotiations towards a definitive solution needed to begin again in earnest.”

I don’t know about you but I’m not entirely sure that they were all in the same room at this meeting (maybe one of them popped out for a wazz when the important stuff was being discussed.)

The ERC statement issued after the meeting (September 11th) indicating that there was still a commitment by all parties to find a solution –was swiftly denied by Peter Wheeler (Premiership representative on the ERC Board) and Nigel Wray (Chairman of Saracens)

So – the clubs are going ahead with plans for their own competition whilst the ERC have adopted an aggressive position and there has even been suggestions of legal action against the clubs. This sounds to me more like a threat than a negotiation but then I’m a cynic (that’s not a baby swan by the way)

Premier Clubs fanned the flames even more with a later announcement indicating that interest has been expressed by ‘other countries’ for joining their new competition. I’m guessing this was maybe Wales and Ireland but of course it could just as easily be Israel or Poland I suppose (that’s irony)

Finally and typically – apparently the RFU were taken by surprise by the announcement of the new tournament and have yet to declare their position despite hearing a presentation from Premiership Rugby at a meeting in London on Wednesday night. You have to laugh – why am I not surprised!

I have no idea (and nor does anyone else it seems) as to where this will end up – to me it seems that, as in the bad old days, it is the establishment who are acting like they are the Lords of the Manor dealing with serfs and seem to think that they can bully the clubs into submission. Trust me; no one is going to be able to treat Nigel Wray or Peter Wheeler like a serf!

ERC have steadfastly refused to acknowledge the Anglo French position until now when it is almost too late. Will they negotiate or resort to legal attempts to thwart the clubs? If the law is their answer I fear that the Heineken is already dead.

If the ERC are to save the Heineken then they will need to make serious not cosmetic concessions to the clubs and to do it soon.

As for the proposed new tournament – well you can’t call it a European competition if it’s only the frogs and us can you. I mean Leinster and Munster have a pretty good record in the Heineken with five out of the last eight trophies being picked up by the Irish sides.

As Eddie Izzard commented to the Yanks when asked about the World Series Baseball “When we have an international competition we tend to invite other countries along”

The big danger is that this heads off into a long standing argument and the greatest club competition (which we can debate in the pub) will die a long and painful death. Of course money dictates that it will be revived at some point in some form by someone, but in the meantime it is the punters who will suffer – and there are a lot of them – average attendance at each of the last 4 finals was 70,000 – with many more watching the game on television.

With so much at stake maybe Sky and BT will get involved in the process – and complicate it even further since one of them will inevitably lose out as well –there being only winners medals on offer (unless of course the two TV companies come to a compromise and share – fat chance!)

At the end of the day it just makes you want to head for the nearest bar and get pissed – and at least they have the right sponsor for that – for now anyway!



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One comment

  1. 1

    I’m not sure if you’re supposed to comment on your own posts – but I just wanted to update the Heineken debacle. The rumour is that Leinster have expressed an interest in joining the Anglo-French breakaway competition. This is no great surprise – they have won the Cup three times in the last five years and will lose a fortune if the competition dies.
    The pressure on the ERC grows by the day!

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