DONAL LENIHAN: War clouds gathering in Europe

Munster Rugby squad training at UL this week. Picture: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

While it’s customary to reflect on rugby events at this time of year, I no more than you have an appetite for that.

I’m far more concerned with issues facing professional rugby in the immediate future than dwelling on the past.

From an Irish rugby perspective 2013 offered a bit of a mixed bag with Ireland’s worst Six Nations campaign in years camouflaging Leinster’s double achievement in winning the Rabo Direct and Amlin Challenge Cup. Pride in the national side was restored with that incredible performance against New Zealand last month even if there is a lingering disappointment that a first ever win over the sport’s No 1 ranked side was blown.

The achievement of the Irish women’s team in winning a first ever Grand Slam has created a whole new awareness of the women’s game in the country while a Lions series win in Australia was badly needed in order to re-establish the credibility of the famous touring squad.

By defying the odds with a superb Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Harlequins at the Stoop and pushing Clermont Auvergne all the way in the semi final at Montpellier’s Stade de la Mosson, Munster showed there is hope for the future. They have followed up on that promise by leading the Rabo Direct entering 2014 with qualification for yet another Heineken Cup quarter-final firmly within their control. All that without reaching anything like their full potential. Yet I can’t help but wonder that the future holds for Munster’s new generation of emerging talent.

Somewhat lost in the furore surrounding the future of the Heineken Cup is the conflict raging between the four Welsh regional sides and the Welsh Rugby Union over — you guessed it — the funding and control of the game in Wales.

Today marks the deadline for the regions to renew their participation agreement with the WRU but they have not sought an extension to that date, citing the uncertainty with the Heineken Cup as the principal reason for the delay. The fact that the Pro12 has yet to attract a sponsor to replace Rabobank next season hasn’t exactly filled them with confidence either.

That participation agreement covers issues such as the competitions the regions play in, payment for international player release, overseas player quotas and a fourth autumn Test match. It was signed for 10 years in 2009, but included an option for the regions to step out in 2013-14 and not extend it to the full term through to 2019.

The fact that all four regions have been offered £4m each to abandon the Pro 12 and join England’s Aviva Premiership has muddied the waters further. To do so would require the approval of the RFU which would put them on a collision course with the other home unions and the Italian federation not to mention legal action between the WRU and their regional sides.

The competitiveness of the Welsh regions has already been compromised by the mass exodus of their international and Lions stars which can’t be good for the game in the principality. The talent drain is set to continue with Jonathan Davies, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans the latest to confirm they will be jumping ship at the end of the season, with Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Priestland and Sam Warburton possibly joining them.

Should that happen, twelve of their first choice national side will be playing abroad. The flight of the Welsh has already impacted on the competitiveness of the Rabo.

While some in Ireland may take great pride in the fact that Munster, Leinster and Ulster are flying high and look certain to make the end of season play-offs, it doesn’t do the league any good if it ends up being as competitive as soccer’s Scottish Premier League.

The word in Wales is that the WRU is facilitating the player drain and willing to accept the short term pain in order to regain control of regional rugby and implement central contracting. In effect they want to replicate the Irish system having missed the boat in doing so when the game went professional in 1995. The refusal of the four sides to renew their participation agreement and join the English threatens to scupper that move.

Given the quality in the Welsh national squad and the potential they have in terms of competing seriously for ultimate honours at the 2015 World Cup, I am a bit surprised that Warren Gatland has allowed the current player drain to proceed unabated. With Zebre, Treviso, Edinburgh and to a lesser extent Glasgow already struggling to make an impact at domestic and European level, the last thing we need is a further dilution of Wales teams.

Unfortunately it is already happening.

RECENTLY here, I highlighted the current re-negotiation of the domestic television deal for coverage of the Top 14 in France with existing rights holders Canal + set to more than double their current €30m annual deal. It’s been reported that an increased bid of €69m per annum has already been turned down by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) with some sources suggesting it could now reach close to the €100m mark. Quite why I’m not sure as the vast majority of rugby played in the Top 14 is dire to watch.

The problem is if French domestic rugby is awash with money and the Heineken Cup is diluted as a product, the game’s top players will flock in their droves to the Top 14 to the detriment of not only a European competition (in whatever guise it emerges), but also to the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 15 tournament.

That will have major consequences for an already cash starved Australian Rugby Union and will ultimately impact on the game at international level with New Zealand and South Africa also affected. Currently the international stars flocking from the SANZAR nations tend to be at the latter stage of their international careers. How long before that changes?

Even New Zealand would struggle to cope with that level of player drain while South Africa already have 55 players domiciled in France with Top 14 clubs.

With the very real prospect that Jamie Heaslip and possibly Sean O’Brien could soon join Jonny Sexton in that tournament, IRFU chief executive Philip Browne has already expressed his well placed concerns. He appreciates fully the implications of the English and French clubs abandoning European competition which would make Irish rugby highly vulnerable to diminished revenue streams.

“It would put us in a very difficult position. It is incumbent on all in European rugby to act with a little bit more maturity. The difficulty we have is that there are a number of club owners who have a very different position. Some of them have more money than the entire worth of international rugby.”

Bottom line is these club owners have little or no interest in the international game but could generate enough through their own resources and broadcast revenues in their domestic league to control where and when the top players play. Therefore it is incumbent on the various unions and federations that currently run the game from the grassroots level, through the clubs and schools and right through to international rugby to retain control over the purse strings. The next six months will be pivotal in that as the current uncertainty, which is paralysing the game in Europe, could undermine the very future of the sport as we know it.

- Having been privy to the Ronan O’Gara documentary that goes out tomorrow night on RTE 1, a word of warning to all sports fans — don’t miss it. It is riveting stuff.


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