Showdown in Dublin for Europe’s powerbrokers

After weeks of posturing over the future of the Heineken Cup, European Rugby stakeholders will all meet face to face for the first time in a Dublin hotel today to begin thrashing out a way forward for the continent’s premier club competition.

The last five days have seen tensions rise considerably since the announcement last Thursday by Premiership Rugby Limited, the body representing the English clubs, that they had sold not only the TV rights to their domestic competition to BT Vision but also to their clubs’ European games from 2014.

This despite PRL’s assent in June as a board member of European Rugby Cup, the organisers of the Heineken Cup, to a new, collective four-year extension of the competition’s television rights with Sky running from 2014 to 2018.

The year 2014 is crucial to the rift between PRL and stakeholders from the other five countries in the ERC board — France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales — as well as its own governing body, the Rugby Football Union.

That is when the current ERC accord expires and PRL jumped into bed with BT Vision on the premise that a new one will not be signed, leaving it free to negotiate its own, independent TV rights deal.

It was an audacious solo run to embark on by PRL’s chief executive Mark McCafferty, who was brought back to earth with a bump 24 hours after trumpeting his €189 million deal with BT Vision when the RFU ruled its contract with the Premiership did not give PRL clubs to sell the rights.

Which brings us to today’s meeting at Dublin’s Westbury Hotel, at which whoever represents PRL will be expected to be one of the first to take the floor and explain what the hell has been going on.

ERC sources maintain that even if the RFU and PRL had entered today’s meeting, which is not a formal board meeting, with a united front, their fellow stakeholders would have rejected the Premiership’s gambit out of hand.

Not only did it fly in the face of numerous IRB regulations which allowed the six unions to give ERC the sole mandate to sell the rights on a collective basis, but PRL’s member on the ERC board signed up to the new Sky deal for Heineken Cup rights at a board meeting in June before embarking on its separate deal with BT Vision.

Today’s meeting will not be specifically about the TV rights issue but is seen as the firing of starter’s gun on the bid to find common ground for the next shareholders’ agreement for 2014 and beyond.

How strong the alliance between PRL and its French counterparts, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, remains after the English solo run is a matter for some debate but may be revealed today. Earlier this summer the LNR joined forces with PRL to call for changes to the structure of the Heineken Cup, which the English feel favours RaboDirect Pro12 teams from the Celtic nations and Italy.

The PRL argument was that its teams have to fight tooth and nail just to qualify for Heineken Cup while Pro12 teams, without the threat of relegation, can afford to rotate personnel through the campaign and reserve its best players for Europe. The French are understood to have been happy to go along with that argument, spotting an opportunity to gain extra places in the competition in a new accord.

This latest development could well see more distance between the two as the English will arrive in search of a fairer distribution of TV money and a change in structure while what the French really want is for the Amlin Challenge Cup and Heineken Cup finals to be moved from May to April so their clubs can have a concentrated run at the Top14 title in May and June rather than be fighting on two fronts.

The LNR does not appear to be in any rush to jump ship with PRL but rather to improve the existing competition and if the French do not really want to leave, who will the English clubs play? Today’s meeting therefore promises to be a very interesting exchange of views indeed.

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