Facing the great unknown

The future of rugby in Europe remains uncertain.

Facing the great unknown

Where is the statesman or woman, the governing body that is going to save professional rugby in the northern hemisphere from death by a thousand cuts?

There is so much talk about rival tournaments at the moment that the only people rubbing their hands with any glee are the trophy makers.

For the rest of us, the season ticket holders, the armchair fans, players, coaches and journalists, all that is left is an unholy, uncertain mess. The game deserves better and there is little doubt substantial change to the northern hemisphere rugby landscape will follow over the next six months.

Will ERC survive? Can the Heineken Cup continue without English, French and top flight Welsh clubs? Will the Rugby Champions Cup ever come to fruition? Can a British & Irish Cup save the day?

Where is the IRB in all of this? Confused? Who wouldn’t be! Angry? Who couldn’t be! Pessimistic about the future of professional club rugby? Too right!

The latest panacea to emerge from talks between the English clubs and Welsh Regions is a British & Irish Cup. This would replace the seemingly doomed Heineken Cup and would involve 22 teams — the 12 Aviva Premiership clubs, the four Irish provinces, two Scottish district sides and the four Welsh regions.

Backing this brave new world, which would start in October, is BT Vision, the new, mega-rich kids on the block in the TV world. The Welsh regions claim this competition would provide them with £12m (€14.5m) extra over a three-year period compared to what their union, the WRU, can offer from patched-up competitions in Europe. Peter Thomas, the millionaire chairman of Cardiff Blues, also claims it will deliver greater revenue streams to the Irish and the Scots. Of equal importance it would keep the four Regions in the Pro12.

“The invitation is there for all to participate. By 31 January, if the Scots and Irish don’t come in, we will have to look at alternative options. You can’t have a European Cup run by the ERC. Two years ago the French and English gave notice and that time is now up,” stated Thomas.

“It is well known England are attached to a very lucrative deal with BT. So they can’t play in an ERC tournament. The French have said they aren’t playing without the English. They also want a tournament run under Fira — the whole situation is just a mess. So we have come up with an alternative and that alternative will give everyone more money and looks after the Irish and the Scottish. It is there for them to decide. If it is not accepted, particularly by the WRU, by January 31 we have said clearly we will consider another option. That option is to play in England — it doesn’t take a genius to work that out.”

This cup competition would inevitably unlock even greater riches for the English clubs, who were the first through the door in their dealings with BT Vision, and pave the way for their dream of replacing ERC’s Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups with a club-run, pan-European replacement, the Rugby Champions Cup.

An offer will be put to the Irish and Scottish teams and unions in the coming weeks. It had better not be on Tuesday because the six unions are due to meet again in Dublin at the ERC offices to try to move further forward on salvaging something from the wreckage of Europe for next season.

The battle around the ERC boardroom table has sparked the problems and begs a few serious questions. Given another spat with the English and French clubs was always likely from the moment they signed the last European participation agreement in May, 2007, why has nothing been achieved over the past seven years to avoid this bitter battle? And why did ERC go down the same TV route with Sky Sports without sitting down with a new player in the marketplace? After all, they did exactly that when they ditched the BBC in favour of Sky. Are they guilty of selling their product, and the clubs, short? Professional sport, for the most part, is only about money. And the costs of running a professional rugby franchise are escalating by the day. No wonder, then, that the Welsh Regions are concerned about a playing future largely out of their hands.

A statement issued on behalf of the four regions by their parent body, Regional Rugby Wales, last week left few in doubt about their feelings.

“10/32 games are not confirmed for the 2014/15 season in just eight months time — 31% of the season. Season ticket and match day ticket incomes cannot be confirmed. Sponsor contracts and income cannot be confirmed within contractual deadlines. Playing kit, merchandise design, orders and income cannot be confirmed within contractual deadlines.

“The total income currently at risk for the 2014/15 season alone amounts to a possible £16m (€19.3m) across the four regions and they are unable to confirm any form of robust business plan and financial forecast beyond May — in five months time!

“At the same time, it is very clear that massive increases in the TV revenues being achieved by the club game in Europe will dramatically increase the funding gap between the regions and clubs in France and England over the next five years; well beyond the reach of any potential increases in attendance or commercial revenues; whilst the funding provided to Irish and Scottish teams from their unions remains significantly greater than that in Wales.”

A bleeding heart story, or a more accurate financial position than governing bodies buoyed by international revenues simply cannot understand? Wherever your loyalties lie, with the unions or clubs, they both play a massive part in the health of the game in their countries. Irish rugby has gorged itself in Europe, with six Heineken Cup titles, while in Wales the staple diet has been at international level with three Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles and a World Cup semi-final in the past eight years.

Can you have success at both levels, club and country? Can the two sides work together to ensure the best players are retained at home? Does success at club level come at a cost on the international stage? Questions, questions, but no concrete answers.

So how do you pick a path through the current, shattered landscape? The WRU appears to be planning a future without their four current regions, which would mean them setting up three or four more teams to carry out their commitments in whatever tournaments ERC can salvage and to play in the Pro12. Will that be a Pro12 with or without a sponsor, with or without any terrestrial TV partners and with or without the two Italian teams? The plot thickens, the problems spread.

Irish players and fans might find themselves playing against teams in Colwyn Bay, Neath or Pontypridd next season.

Quite who the WRU will get to fill these teams is uncertain. The following players are plying their trade “overseas” or have signed for next season (*): George North (Northampton), Jonathan Davies (Clermont Auvergne*), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro 92), Mike Phillips (Racing Metro 92), Richard Hibbard (Gloucester*), Ian Evans (Toulon*), Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro 92) — and the futures of Leigh Halfpenny, Sam Warburton, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams, Adam Jones and Alun Wyn Jones have still to be determined for next season.

The doomsday scenario all around in Wales is that the current crop of world-class players all leave the country, the WRU and the regions end up fighting in the High Court in London this summer before they attempt to play in an expanded Aviva Premiership, leaving the WRU with three or four new teams to enter into understrength European and Pro12 tournaments.

Maybe that British & Irish Cup idea doesn’t sound too bad after all.

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