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  • The European Rugby Debacle

    by Ian Cook

    As most followers of rugby union will have realised by now, there has been a huge spat building over the future of the European Rugby Championship, the Heineken Cup. For the rugby fans and supporters who follow teams involved in this dispute, there must be some worrying times ahead. But for the neutral observer, like myself, it has been a something of an amusing watch.

    Just to recap, the Heineken Cup began in 1995 as a twelve team competition with three French, three Welsh and three Irish teams, two Italian teams and a Romanian team. It was a shaky start, it was poorly supported with most crowds being far less than 10,000 until the final in front of a less than half-full stadium at the Arms Park. The English refused to be a part of it (still coming to terms with the fact that England was part of Europe perhaps) and the Scots weren’t even invited. However, the competition survived and it grew. The following year the number of teams was increased to 16, with the English and the Scots taking part for the first time, then to twenty the following year, before ending up in 1999 with the 24 team/6 pool format that is familiar to anyone who follows it.

    Every new competition needs a “trigger point”; an event that sets the competition alight. Some say it was the 75,000 crowd that turned up for the 2002 final. Some say it was the inclusion of teams from all the top six nations in Europe (and I still think that is a vital part of what makes it so great). Perhaps it was the 76,000 who watched the Stade Francais v Harlequins match in 2008/09, the highest ever attendance at a pool match. However, for me, that trigger point was the 1996/97 final where Brive overran Leicester in one of the best Northern Hemisphere club rugby games I have ever seen. The Cup slowly, but definitely grew from there to become a fantastic competition and one that is the envy of many here in The South. It’s the only rugby competition in Europe that I follow.

    So, it is with some amusement (and concern) that a neutral kiwi like myself looks upon what appears to be going on at the moment. We see two groups of people, the English “Premier Rugby Ltd” ( PRL) and the French “Ligue Nationale de Rugby” (LNR) on one side of the rift, and the Celtic Unions and the Italian Union of the Pro12 on the other. Both sides appear to be hell-bent on destroying the Jewel in the Crown of European Rugby, arguably the world’s premier domestic rugby tournament, and one that has put Northern Hemisphere domestic rugby on the international map. It’s like someone pushed the self-destruct button on European Rugby.*

    This madness has been accompanied by a lot of anger. On the one hand, we have the supercilious posturing of Mark McCafferty (the big banana at PRL) along with his counterpart Paul Goze at the LNR, both of whom have exhibited gross acts bad faith, as well as wilful breaches of iRB regulations in negotiating an illegal TV rights deal with BT Sport, and all behind the backs of the RFU, FFR and the iRB itself. On the other hand we have and tit-for-tat sniping from the Celtic nations, who are bullish in their steadfast refusal to give in to the bullying demands of the English and the French for fears that they will be financially marginalised. I am also pretty sure there have been some downright lies told on both sides of this debate.

    That the club owners have their own interests at heart, ahead of that of the game itself, is fairly obvious. Their past record of acrimonious dealings with the National Unions, who are mandated by the world governing body to run ALL rugby within their own borders, has been plain for all to see. Those of us who remember the bitter dispute between the RFU and PRL over their Long Form Agreement, where finally the issue was taken to court, will understand that much of what is happening now, at least as far as PRL are concerned, is down to lingering animosity from that issue.

    From my own perspective, it comes down to “who would I trust run rugby in England and France?”

    a. the private owners who are out to make a buck; the biggest buck they can in the shortest possible time, or

    b. the National Unions, who, as individuals, stand to gain little, if any, pecuniary return from running the game of rugby in their country.

    It’s a no-brainer really.

    In an interview, McCafferty was quoted as saying “We want all the teams from the six countries involved in the Heineken Cup to take part but it will be run by the clubs with safeguards put in place to ensure it does not cut across international rugby."

    Really? Does anyone really think that McCafferty can be taken at his word after the way he and his organisation has acted? Well, if the way the English and French club owners are treating the current organisers and the other participants in the European Cup is anything to go by (considering that they are not yet in any position of power) then it is abundantly clear that McCafferty and his cohorts cannot be trusted.

    There is little doubt that whatever happens, there will be a negative impact on the game world wide. You only have to look at other professional sports such as Football and Rugby League to see what happens when private individuals get their hands on the reins....

    ► the game gets driven for the benefit of the individual owners

    ► the players are treated as property rather than people

    ► the international game suffers as a result

    ► the power in the club game centralises geographically at the expense of the game globally.

    Fortunately, International Rugby is still enough of a draw card that players still see it as the pinnacle of their game. Enjoy it while it lasts, because it might not remain the case for much longer.
    Comments 92 Comments
    1. Dixie's Avatar
      Dixie -
      Rabid one-sided rant, with assertion presented as fact. It does neither the author nor the publisher any favours, and diminishes both.
    1. crossref's Avatar
      crossref -
      next weeK I am writing an article about reforming the badly-broken club and provincial system in NZ

      to find out more about the conflict over european rugby, I'd recommend Paul Rees and Robert Kitson in the Guardian who have written a series of insightful and (it seems to me anywy) well informed articles

      http://www.theguardian.com/sport/heineken-cup
    1. Ian_Cook's Avatar
      Ian_Cook -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dixie View Post
      Rabid one-sided rant, with assertion presented as fact. It does neither the author nor the publisher any favours, and diminishes both.
      Which assertions are presented as which facts Dixie?
    1. Dixie's Avatar
      Dixie -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ian_Cook View Post
      Which assertions are presented as which facts Dixie?
      I am afraid having read it once, it doesn't warrant revisiting.
    1. Toby Warren's Avatar
      Toby Warren -
      I like the article - well written and clearly lays out the author's view. But it is clearly an opinion piece. Which is fine but should be labelled as such.

      Is this part of a broader attempt to make rr.com less ref focused and more widely rugby focused?
    1. Ian_Cook's Avatar
      Ian_Cook -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dixie View Post
      I am afraid having read it once, it doesn't warrant revisiting.
      Provide the "assertions presented as facts" or withdraw your allegation.
    1. crossref's Avatar
      crossref -
      Quote Originally Posted by Toby Warren View Post
      Is this part of a broader attempt to make rr.com less ref focused and more widely rugby focused?
      that's what worried me TBH. For matters to do with refereeing and Law interpretation this site is second to none.
      but there's lots of places where people disucss the Heineken Cup and I am not sure that referees have any unique perspective to add to that.
    1. menace's Avatar
      menace -
      Quote Originally Posted by crossref View Post
      next weeK I am writing an article about reforming the badly-broken club and provincial system in NZ
      Oh goody...and after that can you do one for Oz please? We are in desperate need of reform as ARU has managed to put international, provincial, club and junior rugby in the crapper!
      (I genuinely fear the death of rugby in Australia is imminent the way ARU control the game)
    1. crossref's Avatar
      crossref -
      Ian just from a quck glance, to save Dixie re-reading I'd suggest that you would need quite a lot of evidence to back up this if either of the parties challenged you . (for instance in the UK libel courts!)

      Mark McCafferty (the big banana at PRL) along with his counterpart Paul Goze at the LNR, both of whom have exhibited gross acts bad faith, as well as wilful breaches of iRB regulations in negotiating an illegal TV rights deal with BT Sport, and all behind the backs of the RFU, FFR and the iRB itself. .... I am also pretty sure there have been some downright lies told on both sides of this debate
    1. Ian_Cook's Avatar
      Ian_Cook -
      Quote Originally Posted by Toby Warren View Post
      I like the article - well written and clearly lays out the author's view. But it is clearly an opinion piece. Which is fine but should be labelled as such.

      Is this part of a broader attempt to make rr.com less ref focused and more widely rugby focused?
      I thought it was obvious that it was an opinion piece, its how I wrote it.

      Robbie asked me to write an article from my perspective, so that is what I did.

      In point of fact, I don't actually give flying feck what they do. I don't support any of the teams in the NH (although I follow Harlequins for the sole reason that my father and uncles were from that area) and I only follow the Heineken Cup because it is by far the best NH Rugby tournament, well above the Premiership, the Top14 and the Pro12, and the equal of Super Rugby IMO.
    1. Ian_Cook's Avatar
      Ian_Cook -
      Quote Originally Posted by crossref View Post
      Ian just from a quck glance, to save Dixie re-reading I'd suggest that you would need quite a lot of evidence to back up this if either of the parties challenged you . (for instance in the UK libel courts!)
      No evidence is needed. Take a look at iRB regulation 13.2.

      13.2 No Rugby Body, Club or Person or any combination thereof may
      negotiate or enter into or benefit from any contract for the grant of any
      Broadcasting Rights in respect of any Match or Matches except with the
      express written consent of the Union within whose territorial jurisdiction
      such Match is or Matches are to be played, such consent to be in the
      absolute discretion of the Union.


      It specifically forbids the negotiation of TV rights without the express approval of the relevant national union, yet of their own admission, they negotiated such rights with BT Sport.

      This is not an assertion of mine, it is an established fact, and if that is not an act of bad faith, and a breach of regulations, then what is?
    1. winchesterref's Avatar
      winchesterref -
      I imagine PRL may have said to the RFU "can we negotiate a TV deal with BT to cover our matches from next season" and the RFU have seen rough £££s and numbers bandied about and probably answered "yes" without thinking too much about implications for European rugby broadcast, and the PRL have worded it in such a way that permission was implied
    1. Shelflife's Avatar
      Shelflife -
      I think that there has been bad faith on both sides, with the celts failing to negiotate in a proper and timely fashion and the prl and llr pressing the nuclear button way too quickly.

      There is smoke and mirrors on both sides of the table and some of the statements are worringly stupid.

      My fear now is that the prl in particular have been backed into a corner by the celts and that they have left no way out for them except to fight.

      The leading war expert Sun Tzu says

      To a surrounded enemy, you must leave a way of escape. and Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.


      He also says

      The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand

      I fear that the generals on both sides have made but few calculations.
    1. winchesterref's Avatar
      winchesterref -
      I'm not sure how they have pressed the nuclear button too early...?

      The season started with teams from the premiership not knowing what they are trying to qualify for. There was under 12 months to go before European competition was to be drawn/seeded and the fixture list created. There is now around 12 months before it might have been time to play the first game.

      What were they supposed to do? They're correct in saying they can't just set up a tournament with a month or two turn around time! The time to negotiate was months ago before this mess. The ERC (in my opinion) tried to call the PRL and hoped they were bluffing, and didn't appear to enter into adequate negotiations in a timely fashion, which has resulted in the PRL saying "ok, fine - the clubs want to know what they're playing for, we have 9 months to get our own competition sorted, and we will."
    1. Toby Warren's Avatar
      Toby Warren -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ian_Cook View Post
      I thought it was obvious that it was an opinion piece, its how I wrote it.

      Robbie asked me to write an article from my perspective, so that is what I did.

      In point of fact, I don't actually give flying feck what they do. I don't support any of the teams in the NH (although I follow Harlequins for the sole reason that my father and uncles were from that area) and I only follow the Heineken Cup because it is by far the best NH Rugby tournament, well above the Premiership, the Top14 and the Pro12, and the equal of Super Rugby IMO.
      On my screen it comes under a big heading saying 'NEWS'

      A good article but news it ain't.

      On the broader point I made earlier is rr.com moving away from pure reffing side of the game?

      I think this is the first non reffing related article - may be wrong but it does seem a departure.
    1. Shelflife's Avatar
      Shelflife -
      jonesp92 is there ever a good time to press the nuclear button? yes something needed to be done, I just feel that they have overreacted and cant undo it. the french on the other hand still have the HC as an option if needed, prl may not if reports are true that their contract with Bt self excludes them from entering the HC.
    1. winchesterref's Avatar
      winchesterref -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shelflife View Post
      jonesp92 is there ever a good time to press the nuclear button? yes something needed to be done, I just feel that they have overreacted and cant undo it. the french on the other hand still have the HC as an option if needed, prl may not if reports are true that their contract with Bt self excludes them from entering the HC.
      Appreciate what you mean! Personally it probably isn't the way I would have conducted things if it was me calling the shots, but they had to show they did mean business somehow and I guess now they've done it they've not left many other options. It is a classic poker game for sure!
    1. crossref's Avatar
      crossref -
      I don't think anyone really knows what is in PRL's contract with BT, but I have no doubt both sides considered the possibility of all this going pear shaped and the contract must contain some get-out clauses that cover what happens in various eventualities ....

      Meanwhile my understanding from some of the material I have read is that the more countries who play in the new tournament, the more the contract is worth to the English and French clubs. That's a good incentive.
    1. Shelflife's Avatar
      Shelflife -
      Quote Originally Posted by crossref View Post
      I don't think anyone really knows what is in PRL's contract with BT, but I have no doubt both sides considered the possibility of all this going pear shaped and the contract must contain some get-out clauses that cover what happens in various eventualities ....

      Meanwhile my understanding from some of the material I have read is that the more countries who play in the new tournament, the more the contract is worth to the English and French clubs. That's a good incentive.
      But im led to believe that there is a clause in it whereby the prl are not allowed to enter the HC unless Bt are involved in someway. If this is true then its all or nothing for the prl, which is never a good way to be negotiating.
    1. crossref's Avatar
      crossref -
      it's the ERC who are really facing all or nothing ---- either they organise a european cup next season , or the company is wound up

      the PRL have the domestic leage .... and some sort of championship
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