BSkyB and BT, the UK’s two warring media giants, were on Thursday night in advanced negotiations over an extraordinary deal to share the television rights for European club rugby and remove the biggest hurdle to a successor for the Heineken Cup.
It has been reported that the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Ian Ritchie, has spent the past fortnight trying to broker a historic agreement between the broadcasters in an attempt to pave the way for an end to the 18-month conflict over the future of the game in the northern hemisphere.
The torturous row over European club rugby has been one of the main battlegrounds between the networks for almost a year and a half, with each having signed an exclusive deal to show matches involving England’s top clubs from next season.
In the autumn of 2012 Sky renewed its contract with Heineken Cup organisers European Rugby Cup Ltd, at virtually the same time as BT reached an agreement with Premiership Rugby which included any European games involving its clubs after English and French sides announced they were severing ties with the ERC.
The existence of two incompatible contracts became a focal point of hostilities between clubs and unions already at loggerheads over the structure and finances of any European competition.
So, an agreement between Sky and BT to share the TV rights was seen as crucial to rescuing European club rugby from the abyss and sparing both broadcasters and governing bodies from litigation that could do irrevocable damage to the relationship between them.
As of Thursday night, negotiations were continuing as to what each network would get out of any new deal, but how matches involving English clubs are divided up looks certain to be key.
So deep is the enmity between Sky and BT that it is understood that there have been no direct talks between the broadcasters, with Ritchie – who has played a leading role in peace talks with all stakeholders and whose CV includes a stint as chief executive of Channel 5 – instead acting as a go-between.
While neither company wants to be seen as having backed down, each recognises the unique predicament it has been left in and the potential consequences of gambling on the courts deciding which – if any – of them has a legitimate contract in place and whether either has a valid claim for compensation.
News of negotiations between Sky and BT came 24 hours after European rugby’s stakeholders took a significant step forward in reaching agreement on the structure of a six-nation club tournament at talks in Paris.
Commercial and television rights remained the outstanding issues, although there were suggestions any deal between Sky and BT could open the door for a company to be set up to run a new 20-team tournament next season.
Premiership Rugby and its French counterparts were hopeful a voting structure would be agreed to ensure that the three leagues (Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12), not the unions, had the ultimate say over the selling of commercial rights.
The meeting, which broke up at lunchtime, was officially described as “positive and constructive”.
Although the level of optimism varied among the different parties, sources indicated that the desire by all for an inclusive six-nation tournament could be a watershed moment in the 18 months of negotiations.
While there was no response from the RFU on the state of play, its Welsh counterpart issued a statement claiming it remained “confident that the progress now achieved will lead to a positive outcome for all stakeholders”.
It added: “The cautious optimism is based on a detailed structure of actions to be pursued immediately.”
It is now likely that further talks will continue between smaller groups, although the return of the Six Nations next week is likely to put negotiations on hold.
With talks having broken down several times previously, no one was taking anything for granted as to whether this week’s events really did represent the beginning of the end of one of rugby union’s most bitter disputes since it turned professional.
Sky and BT putting aside their differences to facilitate an amicable conclusion was also by no means a certainty.
The media giants’ rivalry extends well beyond the sports broadcasting market, in which they have repeatedly locked horns since BT’s shock capture of some of the rights to Premier League football in June 2012.
It also blew Sky out of the water in November by paying £897million for exclusive coverage of European football from 2015. Sky hit back by tying up several key rights, including for the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.
The pair are poised to do battle again over rugby when the contract for England’s autumn internationals – taking in 2015 World Cup warm-up friendlies – goes out to tender.