Heineken Cup rescued but English involvement unlikely in 2014/15
THE future of the Heineken Cup appears to have been secured at a meeting in Dublin today but it looks like there will be no English clubs in the 2014/15 installment.
Delegates from the Welsh, Irish, French, Italian and Scottish unions assembled in the Irish capital to discuss the future of European rugby and afterwards they confirmed their commitment to ploughing ahead regardless of the English Premiership clubs’ determination to form a rival competition.
They confirmed that next year’s Heineken Cup would be a 20-team competition, with revenues distributed equally between the participating leagues as per the their previous announcement last month.
European Rugby Cup will retain control of the tournament’s commercial rights, while the IRFU statement stated an aim of moving eventually towards the “integration of European competitions within all-encompassing European rugby framework”.
“A European club competition is to take place during the 2014/2015 season following an optimized sporting and economic format with 20 teams, no matter how many countries are involved,” the statement read.
“All five Unions believe that it is critical to the interests of the game in Europe that the Unions are at the heart of the governance of cross-border club competitions given that rugby in each country is organised in a pyramidical structure.
“Clubs, provinces and regional organisations form an integral part of the development of the game throughout this structure, from grassroots to the international game. Cross-border club competitions must not conflict with the development of the sport in Europe by Unions, this being in the best interest of players, spectators and the sport in general.”
Premiership Rugby responded to the unions' position by reconfirming their intent to launch the Rugby Champions Cup.
"Premiership Rugby notes the statement issued this evening concerning the proposed new European club rugby competitions for the 2014/15 season," read a statement released by Premiership Rugby.
"There is no detail concerning the teams involved or the competition format given the absence of so many teams.
"The English and French clubs served notice on ERC and its competitions on 1st June 2012 and the required notice period concludes after the end of this season when the Accord will terminate.
"Today's announcement would appear to indicate that the latest negotiations have been ended, as was the case in September 2013.
"As a result, we shall continue to implement the plans under way for the Rugby Champions Cup with the declared participants in time for the 2014-15 season."
The statement released by the five unions failed to mention the French teams and Welsh regions who have already indicated they want to join their counterparts from England in the new Rugby Champions' Cup.
It has been reported that support from the Top 14 sides is wavering amid pressure and financial incentives from their union and they appear to hold the key to victory in the dispute.
Should the French clubs become divided, Europe will be braced for rival competitions next season.
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty is confident they remain loyal - along with the Welsh.
"We don't see any evidence of their support wavering. We were working with them on Wednesday on the implementation of the Champions Cup," McCafferty said.
"They certainly say that they've never received a financial offer from the French union and we've taken that on trust.
"They've made it very clear over the last 18 months they won't be involved in any competitions in which the English clubs are not playing
"I'm also confident that the Welsh regions remain in support of the Rugby Champions Cup."
Genuine progress in the dispute appeared to have been made in late October when two days of meetings in Dublin concluded with a consensus being reached on a number of issues.
But the peace has been interrupted by the announcement from the five unions that they will establish a "format with 20 teams, no matter how many countries are involved."
"The competition will be driven by the existing organisation (currently named ERC) which will remain in charge of the centralised sale and management of all commercial rights, amongst other things," their statement continued.
"Discussions over governance will be pursued in order to optimise the internal functioning of the existing organisation (currently named ERC)."
McCafferty questions the credibility of the format proposed by the unions.
"We could end up with two tournaments and what's surprising is they're ditching the Heineken Cup entirely and shrinking down to one competition of 20 teams," he said.
"Presumably they're saying all the RaboDirect PRO12 clubs will qualify for that automatically, which doesn't sound at all like an elite competition."
The RFU expressed its dismay at its exclusion from Thursday's talks in Dublin.
Chief executive Ian Ritchie was present at the negotiations in October that were attended by all six unions and ended with broad agreement on certain principles.
However, the way in which European club competition is governed is proving a critical stumbling block.
"We are extremely surprised and disappointed not to be involved today," an RFU statement read.
"It is right that the outcomes of the mediated meeting held in Dublin on October 24, which resulted in an agreement for a meritocratic tournament and equitable distribution of revenues, have been reaffirmed.
"It has been clear for some time that governance is a central outstanding issue.
"We remain committed to help facilitate a solution so that a truly pan European competition can continue to thrive for the benefit of players and spectators alike."
By Ruaidhri O’Connor