Sport Champions Cup

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Fears grow as Heineken rescue deal adds to French clubs' war-chest

Published 29/11/2013 | 03:01

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Sean O'Brien

The Heineken Cup may have been saved for another year at least in its current format but it looks unlikely that it will include English clubs, with the Welsh clubs also unsure as to their immediate future in the competition.

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But Irish provinces could be left in the financial slipstream behind their French counterparts for years to come -- with our star players more likely to become transfer targets.

After the French yesterday voted to remain in the Heineken Cup under the guise of the ERC for an extra season at least, they did so only after being guaranteed a cash bonanza by their unions.

The provinces will still purportedly see their revenues remain largely unchanged for next season but in comparison to the powerful French teams, Ireland's clubs' financial hand has been weakened further than ever before.

And this will surely strengthen the French sides' grip as they seek to bolster their playing rosters, with high-profile out-of-contract Irish stars such as Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien (left) and Conor Murray likely to remain at the top of their shopping lists.

After a decisive twist yesterday from the French clubs, who appear to have conceded to another "transition" year under current Heineken Cup governance and competition rules, it now also seems that the breakaway Rugby Champions Cup may have bitten the dust. On top of a money-spinning TV deal, which is due for renewal next month, but had been threatened by the Union had there been a Heineken Cup boycott, the already agreed €2m sweetener means that the French clubs' spending power will be bigger than at any other time in the professional age.

Camou had confidently declared he could deliver at least six clubs to the new streamlined competition and it looks as though he has won the day.

It's understood half the revenue from the Sky-televised Heineken Cup will go to the French clubs, with the other half to be divided among the four Pro12 countries.

The French, Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Italian Unions all pledged last week to carry on with the ERC-run event without the English but the Welsh clubs are still undecided as to which route they will take.

The impoverished four Welsh regions seem to have two hopes of salvaging something from the wreckage -- and one of those pulled out of the station yesterday.

"If there's a new structure to replace ERC and we have detail of that, something might be feasible," said Mark McCaffrey, who has led English clubs' moves for a breakaway from the ERC-run competition.

At the meeting in France yesterday, despite fierce objections from several of the biggest French clubs -- thought to include the four-time European champions Toulouse and the two Parisian teams, Racing Metro and Stade Français -- the vote to remain in the Heineken Cup went the way of the status quo.

Racing Métro owner Jacky Lorenzetti reportedly stormed out of the meeting following the vote to return to the Heineken Cup and abandon the RCC.

Paul Goze, the chairman of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, was reported as saying that the French contingent would remain in the Heineken Cup for one more "transitional year", provided the English clubs could be persuaded to join them and on the condition that the current organising body was disbanded by the end of the 2014-15 season.

Together with the French clubs, the English clubs had served notice of their intention to quit the Heineken Cup more than 18 months ago and have repeatedly stated their intention to make good on that decision.

They have also declared that all future European matches involving English teams will be broadcast by BT Sport, their new television partners.

That broadcasting deal remains the biggest single obstacle in the search for an agreement that will safeguard the future of a European campaign featuring teams from all the major northern hemisphere nations.

The Heineken Cup administrators agreed a contract extension with Sky Sports in the summer of last year, much to the annoyance of the English clubs, and are in no mind to renege on it.

Quite where this left the argument, none of the key players was remotely sure.

"I'm trying to get more detail on exactly what was agreed," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, the English clubs' umbrella organisation, and a central figure in the move towards setting up a breakaway tournament.

"My reading on the face of it is that the French now want new structures in place for 2015-16 rather than 2014-15 and are willing to stay where they are during the year of transition, but we need to understand what is meant by 'transition'.

"What does this mean for the Rugby Champions Cup? It's difficult to say at this stage. We know that the organisers of the existing tournament have agreed to implement improvements to the competition format we demanded at the start of this process, and that they have also accepted the need for a fairer division of monies.

"We also know, because they said so last week, that they are looking at improving the governance structure. If all that comes together, it could be that the new competition we are proposing will effectively be in place at the end of next season.

"As things stand at the moment, I can't see how the English clubs will be involved in the Heineken Cup in 2014-15. But this issue is working its way down a long and winding road and there are likely to be more twists and turns before we reach its end."

Long-time observers of the club game in France will not be wholly surprised by yesterday's events. The regulatory structures under which the government, the national Olympic association and the governing bodies of the major sports coalesce make it extremely difficult for clubs to act unilaterally and the Top 14 teams' united front began to splinter when the French establishment started throwing its weight around.

Pierre Camou, the president of the Federation Francaise de Rugby, was said last night to have used "the full court press" to force the clubs into a climbdown.

His position could be under threat when he next goes for re-election, with powerful Biarritz president Serge Blanco lining up the office and, if he is successful, he will aim to revert the power to the clubs.

While the Premiership contingent were putting a brave face on things, there was little doubt that the news emerging from yesterday's meeting, confused and contradictory as it may have been, was far from welcome.

Meanwhile, the poverty-stricken regional teams in Wales -- Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets -- were left in no man's land as a result of yesterday's developments.

They pledged their support for the Rugby Champions Cup, a tournament that may well turn out to be a dead duck.

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