Heineken Cup on the brink

BT Vision boss Marc Watson today sounded an apparent death knell for the Heineken Cup.

The tournament's future is under a cloud after the broadcaster secured a £152million (¤189m) deal with Premiership Rugby that includes live broadcast rights for European games played by Aviva Premiership clubs for three years from 2014.

English and French clubs are in dispute with European Rugby Cup (ERC) over the tournament's structure, especially its qualification format, and are threatening to set up an alternative when the current agreement ends in 2014.

And chief executive Watson, whose company will also show live Premiership rugby matches from the start of next season, has now fanned those flames.

“We are looking to set up, or at least help set up, a dazzling new European tournament with a fantastic new format, with, we hope, all the best clubs,” he said.

“And we've secured, from the English Premiership, the rights to that for the UK. That tournament will be the successor to the Heineken Cup, which is a very successful tournament.

“The Heineken Cup, under its current contract, has another season to run, and that will be the end of it, and we are looking to set up a brand new tournament from then.

“We saw in rugby an opportunity to own a sport exclusively, certainly at club level, and the rights that we've bought give us an opportunity to do that.

“We are hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2015 in the UK. It's a great opportunity in the two years running up to that, we think, to grow the sport.”

”It's a sport that has got a long way to go. We were attracted by the idea of growing with it, and helping it to grow in the UK.”

Watson's comments will do nothing to alter the sense of disarray in the European game following Premiership Rugby's announcement.

ERC yesterday revealed a four-year extension with existing Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup live broadcaster Sky.

And ERC also reacted to Premiership Rugby's statement surrounding future live European coverage by claiming their deal with BT Vision was “in breach both of IRB regulations and of a mandate from the ERC board itself”.

“European club rugby's six participant Unions have granted the authority to sell broadcast rights to its tournaments solely to ERC,” they said in a statement.

A meeting of ERC stakeholders is due to be held in Dublin next Tuesday.

Premier Rugby, though, claimed ERC had no right to sell television rights beyond expiry of the current tournament accord in 2014, which along with top French clubs, they have already served notice to quit.

“As a result of notice being served, ERC is not entitled after 2014 to sell the broadcast rights of matches involving Premiership Rugby clubs,” said the Premiership Rugby statement.