Tip of the Iceberg – Heineken Cup saga continues

Just imagine the following scenario;

Top English clubs fall out with the ruling bodies and sign their own television broadcast deal allowing salaries to balloon which attracts more overseas players leading to the decline of the England team!

Couldn’t happen in English Rugby?

Maybe not – but the above isn’t fantasy, it did happen – it  happened to soccer in the UK when the (now) Premiership Clubs broke away from the Football League back in the early 90s.

Are there any parallels? Does any of it resonate? And is there a lot more danger below the surface in the current situation regarding the Heineken Cup?

English Premiership Clubs (and French) are in a similar (if not exact) situation – and they both know that there is quite a lot of money available to them if they go their own way.

Okay – nothing like the money in football – but more than enough to make it worthwhile – and substantial sums are not just on the table – but television contracts with BT Sport have already been agreed (at more than the Sky deal and with fewer people to share it!)

How the hell did this happen? – more importantly how was it allowed to happen?

I wrote some 10 days ago about the possible demise of the Heineken Cup and the reasons why the English and French are planning to break away (‘The Heineken Cup Runneth Over’) – well things have moved on since then – unfortunately backwards. There now seems less of a chance of a peaceful resolution than this time last week, and it looked pretty slim even then.

The two protagonists don’t look so much farther apart as on completely different planets!

The ERC claim to want urgent talks – so urgent that they’ve set up a meeting for October 23rd – that’s right, October not September – so not all that urgent then. Having said that the timing seems irrelevant as the English and French clubs have insisted that negotiations are at an end anyway.

They have been acting not prevaricating – having named their competition – The Rugby Champions Cup and are believed to be negotiating with at least five non English or French clubs to join the new format. The Irish clubs are almost certainly involved at this stage – they stand to lose a fortune if they do not have a European competition. The other Nations’ clubs will also be reluctant to miss out on the potential financial benefits of being inside the tent.

It is also rumoured that the Irish Union have approached the IRB to get involved.

The ERC have not been totally idle – they have appointed a mediator – recommended by the IRB and supposedly independent. In my experience a mediator has to be acceptable to both sides – did anyone ask the Clubs? I suspect not, since they have simply ignored the announcement by the ERC. The Clubs have also yet to indicate if they’ll even turn up on the 23rd

The bloke who has been tasked (a singularly appropriate description) with this job is Graeme Mew – a highly experienced mediator in sport disputes. He will need the judgement of Solomon and preferably a better solution to deal with this one. At the moment he doesn’t seem to have anyone to mediate with!

There have also been suggestions that the ERC believe that they have an enforceable contract for another year of the Heineken Cup – way to go guys!

There is no better way to begin mediation than resorting to lawyers (apologies to Mr Mew who I believe is in fact such a beast – and a very successful one too)

I said in my previous article that the TV companies could help provide a breakthrough in this matter if they were willing to talk and compromise on the TV rights – I still believe that is unlikely but then there have been examples of such co-operation. But that will only solve part of the problem.

The IRB have indicated that they would sanction the new competition if the Unions agree. The French Union (FFR) have announced that it would be legally impossible without their permission and Jean Pierre Lux (Chairman of ERC) has jumped on this to fuel the flames with claims that Ian Ritchie (RFU Chief) has told the English clubs that there would be no new competition. It is informative that Ritchie made no mention of this when he spoke to the media earlier this week.

If I was being mischievous I’d pose two questions

  1. Do the ERC really think that they can sustain the Heineken Cup beyond next season if they don’t respond to the clubs and instead resort to ‘quasi legal’ methods of forcing them to participate?
  2. Will the Clubs simply rollover if the Unions bully them into accepting that they can’t run their own competition?


You’d hope that the Unions would be aware of the real risks whichever way they go – most importantly in the longer term.

For the sake of sanity and a strong European competition let’s hope that something can be done to sort out this mess. If the Heineken is to be saved then there will need to be major revisions to the format – the English and French clubs have genuine grievances.

They now also have a large stick (courtesy of BT Sport) to bargain with and are unlikely to want to compromise on either the question of meritocratic qualification or distribution of revenues.

Before the Southern Hemisphere get too smug about the unseemly squabbling up here – just consider the possibility of the Clubs breaking away even further and forming their own competitions.

What do you think they are going to do with all that TV money?

Where will they look to build strong squads?

If you need a clue – just look at the number of overseas players in the English soccer Premiership!

By the time you read this it may already be out of date (although ERC seem to be in no rush to settle matters) – anyway watch this space (and keep your fingers crossed!)

At the moment it looks like a scene from Titanic with Lux and the ERC at the prow heading towards an iceberg – a bloody great iceberg!

God help us!




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