We need English clubs in Europe, but only if...

THE end is in sight, even if we are not quite there yet.

The IRFU must have enjoyed one giant sigh of relief last week as the English club owners received a massive setback to their plans for a new European competition, having been left high and dry by their French counterparts, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR).

That said, the war isn’t over, even if Premier Rugby Limited (PRL) have been holed below the waterline. The Heineken Cup appears to have survived, for another season at least, albeit a watered down version of the tournament we have become so familiar with over the last decade. There is still much to be resolved however, not least the 20 teams who will be invited to take part in next season’s tournament.

It remains extremely doubtful, for instance, that the Aviva Premiership will provide any teams given that PRL will be forced to retain some face and hold tough on their decision to exit any competition run by the ERC. Their much-hyped, but ultimately doomed Rugby Champions Cup competition, has been consigned to the bin without any details surrounding the format of that tournament ever seeing the light of day — a severe blow. AnyAnglo- French alliance was always going to be skating on thin ice as historically there is little trust between the factions running the club game in both countries. When Toulon’s multi-millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal turned his back on the LNR over the proposed introduction of quotas on the number of foreign players, you got an insight into how difficult it is for clubs in the same country to work together, not to mind forming an alliance with counterparts from another jurisdiction.

The fact Boudjellal threw in his chips with the ERC must have seriously angered PRL who have become allergic to the Dublin-based body and want nothing to do with them. Part of that is tied up with the fact in the war for the broadcasting rights for the Heineken Cup, ERC have a contract with Sky while the PRL have not only gone to bed with BT Vision for their Aviva Premiership coverage but had also committed to having them cover their home games in Europe from next season onwards.

The only way they can enforce that is to seize the running of the Heineken Cup from ERC in preference to a new regulatory body on the premise that if the ERC no longer exists, Sky’s contract is worthless. English club rugby faces enormous financial challenges as it is and any decision to boycott Europe will not be compensated for in the long run with their new domestic television deal alone.

Quite what the fans of Leicester Tigers, Harlequins and Northampton, to name just three, think of a sporting horizon without the likes of Toulouse, Clermont-Auvergne, Leinster or Munster would be interesting to hear if anyone within the PRL bothered to take the time to consult them.

Is this man the saviour of the Heineken Cup?

Pierre Camou: Should be feted by the unions of Ireland, Wales, Italy and Scotland.

Talk was that the Welsh regions were committing to the proposed new Rugby Champions Cup against the wishes of the WRU and that they could now be invited into the Aviva Premiership to help fill the void created by the nine weekends previously earmarked for European competition. That would hardly sate the appetite of the diehard English rugby fan. The Newport Gwent Dragons or Toulon? Take your pick.

If Tom Kiernan and Vernon Pugh were the heroes of the last serious challenge from the English clubs to the European Cup back in the 1998/99 season when they pressed on with the fledgling competition without an English presence, then French Federation president Pierre Camou is the one who should be feted most by the unions of Ireland, Wales, Italy and Scotland when their respective committees sit down and break bread over the forthcoming Six Nations.

Camou is the one who eyeballed the French clubs and forced the abandonment of their English counterparts. Not only did he make it absolutely clear the FFR wouldn’t authorise their involvement in any new cross border tournament not run by the respective unions through the ERC, but he also threatened to exercise the statutory right of the FFR to take away the clubs’ operating licences.

The participation agreement between the French clubs and the FFR for the French Top 14 was up last June but was extended until the impasse in Europe was settled. This agreement also encompasses the domestic television rights which are up for renewal at the end of the season. Qatar-owned beIN Sport have expressed an interest and could bid against existing broadcasters Canal+, who paid €120m for a four year deal last time out.

The suggestion now is that Canal+ could increase their bid from €30m to €65m a season this time out so there is a lot of money at stake for the French clubs in their domestic market alone.

While Camou was putting it up to the French clubs, the Celtic unions along with the Italian federation recognised that the key to saving the tournament was to satisfy the vast majority of the demands for change. The IRFU, SRU, WRU and the FIR played their part by acceding to the joint wishes of the Anglo-French alliance in reducing the tournament to 20 teams, by sanctioning an even split of revenues to the three domestic leagues, the Rabo Direct Pro12, the French Top 14 and the Aviva Premiership, along with introducing a qualification format for the top seven teams from the Rabo.

Given the French had the vast majority of their wish list satisfied, they saw no real benefit in prolonging the war. It also helped that the FFR, according to reports, offered the clubs €2 million each to commit to playing in the Heineken Cup next season.

PRL are set to meet this week to examine the fallout but it appears certain they will opt out of Europe next season. While we might derive some sort of pleasure in seeing the bullying tactics employed by some of the English club owners scuppered, there is no doubt that a Heineken Cup without English teams demeans the tournament.

Those emotive battles against high-flying English clubs have sustained and energised the Irish provinces right from the outset of European competition back in 1995. Northampton Saints’ game against Leinster on Saturday is the tie of round three with memories of Leinster’s incredible second-half comeback at the Millennium Stadium in 2011 sure to be the talk amongst both sets of supporters.

Factor in the amazing scenes after Munster’s brilliant quarter final win over Harlequins at the Stoop last season and you really begin to appreciate that, despite their power play, you really need the English on board — but only on terms acceptable to all six participating countries.

A good week then for the ERC but the devil remains in the detail and there is still much work to be done.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

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