HEINEKEN CUP: The gamble has failed and we have all lost

In gambling you have winners and losers – but Premiership Rugby’s punt on the future of European rugby means we have all lost. <

The English clubs, led by Premiership Rugby Limited (PRL) chief executive Mike McCafferty, have long been steadfast in their belief that their proposed 20-team tournament was the best solution for European rugby to save itself.

Now they stand isolated and alone, desperately looking for new competitions in which to compete next season.

This is the outcome nobody wanted.

All those great matches between Munster and Gloucester or Leinster and Leicester will not happen again – not in the near future at least. Instead, the English clubs are looking at whether to expand the Premiership or play against southern hemisphere opposition, most likely from South Africa.

The depth of feeling against ERC is shown by the fact that support amongst the English clubs for pulling out of the Heineken Cup was unanimous.

That leaves the Irish, French, Scots and Italians — and perhaps the Welsh — to continue with a reduced competition still under the guidance of ERC. Say what you like about them, ERC know how to scrap for their lives and have somehow survived when it seemed all was lost.

There are fixture lists to be drawn up and TV contracts to be pored over in minute detail, with any continued Heineken Cup devalued as a result of losing the English sides.

The issues of qualification and how proceeds would be divided have long been cited as key reasons in the dispute, but we should also examine the clash between Sky and BT Sport over TV rights for the respective competitions – Sky having done a deal with ERC and BT with PRL.

Indeed, the new deal with BT has given the English sides much greater financial stability, with McCafferty believing it allows his clubs to ride out the current storm and loss of income from not being in the Heineken Cup.

That the French sides bolted killed their chances of heading up the proposed Rugby Champions Cup and puts English players in a strange position.

One of the key tenets of Stuart Lancaster’s reign has been that he will not select players outside the Premiership unless they are playing substantially better than those in England. That means that come the 2015 World Cup England’s players will not have played against top European opposition all season at club level. Theoretically that should help Ireland’s cause but it will also harm Munster, Leinster and Ulster in the short-term.

Ultimately the dispute between ERC and Premiership Rugby was too big, as evidenced by the fact that even last night disagreements emerged over the latter’s reference to ERC voting structures in their statement.

It read: “The Chairmen and Shareholders of Premiership Rugby met today to consider amongst other matters the situation and options related to European club rugby issues.

“The English Clubs have unanimously re-confirmed their position. Having served notice in June 2012, they will not participate in any competitions run by ERC from 2014-15 season.

“ERC does not structurally recognise the role of the leagues and clubs in driving the success of club competitions, under the overall governance of Unions. The ERC voting structure is controlled by Unions even though the majority of commercial value is created by the independent clubs which represent 75 per cent of the participants.

“Proposals put forward to address a new structure within a Rugby Champions Cup were agreed by a majority of the Unions in October, alongside meritocratic competition formats and equitable financial distributions. However, these have not been accepted by all.

“The English Clubs have worked exhaustively over the last 18 months to propose solutions to the issues with the current European competitions and to provide a sustainable platform to grow the game in the various countries.

“The English clubs are now pursuing other options.”

So, the gamble has failed and we have all lost. Apart from, that is, the lawyers. They have done well out of a scenario that has seen European rugby try to fall apart from the seams – and may well have succeeded.


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