Saturday 21 October 2017

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Breakthrough paves way for watered down Heineken Cup

THERE has been a breakthrough at last in the battle over the future of European rugby and while losing the English clubs would devalue the 2014-15 Heineken Cup, it is better than having no competition at all.

Compromise never appeared to be on the Premiership clubs' agenda and from the moment they sold their European television rights to BT Sport and broke from the pack they reached a point where return was unlikely.

Although they assured anyone who would listen that they had the French and Welsh clubs on board and that the Scots were ready to follow, their gunboat public declarations appeared to have been matched by behind-the-scenes diplomacy by the unions.

However, while last night's announcement was marked progress towards a European competition, there is still some way to go before the make-up of the tournament will be known.

The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and French Federation (FFR) must now sit down with their clubs and thrash out an agreement that they want to play ball. The noises are positive, but there remains some work to be done.

While, at times, the Heineken Cup appeared unsalvageable and a season without continental rugby looked a distinct possibility, the much-maligned blazers worked behind the scenes and in the meeting rooms in the moderation sessions chaired by Canadian Graeme Mew.

Ultimately, it all hinged on French involvement. The Celtic unions have taken the English on before, in 1999, but they always needed the Top 14 clubs to sign up. The FFR appear to have stepped in and played hard ball with the clubs, while offering them a carrot of €2m for participating in the ERC-run tournament to go with the stick.

If they sign up but the English don't, the Heineken Cup will be weakened but will continue. Don't say it too loud up north, but the 1999 tournament was far from vintage and Ulster's win will forever carry an asterisk.

You can only beat the teams put in front of you, but given rugby hardly transcends the continent, losing the English clubs with their huge support, fine stadiums and added glamour is a blow to the standard and merit of the tournament.

At the same time, losing the tournament altogether was an Armageddon situation for Irish rugby with the union already dealing with the poor long-term ticket sales at the Aviva Stadium, a poor economy and the growing reality of being outbid for their top players by French clubs.

Facing into 2014-15 without European rugby was a scenario they couldn't afford to face and it now looks like they have avoided their doomsday.

With contract negotiations with Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray, Paul O'Connell, Dave Kearney, Donnacha Ryan and Jamie Heaslip, among others, set to continue in the weeks to come, the guarantee of European competition strengthens the union's hand, while the revenue will aid in their offerings.

There is still some way to go before the future is truly secured, with the French clubs and the Welsh regions yet to fully commit to the ERC-run tournament, but yesterday's meeting appears to have paved the way for the retention of the 16-year-old tournament.

It might be diluted and lacking something if the English clubs don't capitulate and come on board, but maintaining the status quo was important for Irish rugby and that has been achieved.

Irish Independent

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