Monday 25 September 2017

Time for entente cordiale

Appeasing French is key to getting best deal, writes Brendan Fanning

If you are unnerved by the outbreak of Christmas decorations before the fireworks of Halloween have even gone off, then think how the power brokers of European rugby feel.

Their hope was that by the time the fat man is trying to squeeze down the chimney, the shareholders of ERC would already be around the fire, singing carols and swapping presents. It's not an easy picture to paint.

Those same shareholders are due to meet in Huguenot House in Dublin on Tuesday, but as of this morning travel plans are up in the air. And they may not come down again until tomorrow when it's expected PRL, the body representing the English clubs, will still be conducting a round of conference calls, which started on Friday.

Having been excluded from the meeting in Paris last week attended by all the other parties, PRL have the hump. At all times in this process, someone somewhere is doing a camel impression.

The battle lines were first drawn when the English and French clubs served notice that they wanted fundamental change to the structure of European competition before another accord could be signed in 2014. That was by the book.

Then PRL wrote a whole new chapter last month by announcing a solo-run television deal with BT Vision, despite their having been a party to the extended deal done with Sky. The first meeting of the shareholders after that announcement was a tense affair, which offered no detail on PRL's plan. The second, in Rome three weeks ago, moved from tension to open hostility, with PRL representatives Mark McCafferty and Bruce Craig being banished from the room at one point.

It's understood that at that meeting there was an agreement that the (English) RFU, on behalf of the other unions, would take a look at the PRL contract and see if it could stand up.

From the outset there have been serious doubts about the deal on two levels: PRL's entitlement to do it in the first place, and its commercial content in the second. It is also understood that the RFU are still waiting to see the contract. PRL would not comment yesterday when asked why they had not handed over the contract for examination as agreed. "We are in constant and confidential discussions with the RFU and we can't reveal the content of those," a spokesman said yesterday.

So with PRL sitting on the naughty step, the other shareholders convened in Paris last week to see if they could fix on some common ground. The parcel they come up with was/is a resolve to move right along if Mark McCafferty shows up on Tuesday and takes his BT Vision file from his briefcase. That ship has sailed.

What they didn't agree on in Paris was what structure the European competitions would have beyond 2014. Currently there are three models on the catwalk: the 20-team version of the Heineken Cup proposed by the English/French axis when they made public their demands for change; the current 24-team format favoured by the Celts and Italians; and a 32-team party which would involve merging the Heineken and Amlin competitions.

An obvious downside to the third option is that it would leave two clubs in each territory (Pro 12, Premiership and Top 14) twiddling their thumbs while everyone else is at the main party.

It was reported, and remains unconfirmed, that the French knocked back the 32-team version. As far as the Celts are concerned, that issue is still an option. Appeasing the French is seen as key to the process, which is why the Celts and Italians are limbo dancing to Edith Piaf records. Moving the final from its showpiece slot at the end of May was once unthinkable -- now it's a live issue if it means keeping the French happy. They have more clubs outside the Heineken Cup than any of the other constituents, and naturally their domestic business is a bigger deal, so freeing up some space in May for the Top 14 final is huge for them.

The problem with keeping the French onside however, is that the line may shift in the next two months. There are elections for a new board at LNR, the club's body, next month, and that group in turn will elect a new president. Patrick Wolffe, currently their rep at the ERC table, and a man who preaches peace every time he opens his mouth, is not the favourite.

So who knows what colour the sky will be in the world of the new president. Or indeed what shape the planet will be when viewed from the French Federation HQ after it elects a new president in December.

If PRL were to show up on Tuesday, and real progress was to be made, then Wolffe could fly back to France with his credentials enhanced. It's a country mile however from wondering will they show, to hoping they will arrive with compromise on their minds.

If PRL stay away however, and the French show up, then the English clubs run the risk of being further isolated. And if both stay at home then the meeting will be called off, and we'll get a cooling-off period which will bring us closer to the French elections, after which nobody knows what they'll be dealing with. Christmas is coming at a rate of knots.

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