Browne: Compromise vital in Euro stand-off
PHILIP BROWNE last night described the tactics employed by the Premiership (PRL) and French (LNR) clubs as "deplorable," but believes they must find a way to work together or risk "destroying" professional rugby.
The IRFU chief executive is anxious to move past recent events for the betterment and, he insisted, the very survival of the game.
"It would be foolish of us not to view this situation within those parameters," said Browne.
"Part of the problem, I believe, is that there is a fundamental lack of understanding in the English and French clubs about how rugby is structured in other nations.
"The European Cups are worth roughly €4.5m to us and the same to Wales. Those are sizeable chunks of money.
"We (the IRFU) could maybe bear the loss of that money for a year or two, but not beyond that. We sustain and fund a whole programme of rugby from grassroots up to international level. I don't think the clubs in England and France realise just what is involved in that."
Browne is understandably critical of the timing of the PRL's announcement on the eve of yesterday's scheduled ERC Board meeting, but is hopeful that genuine progress can be made in the upcoming conclaves.
This will happen only if all parties are open to true negotiations.
"We all have to work together but these negotiations must be just that, negotiations. The stance up to now is that for the English clubs to be winners there has to be a loser. That attitude is counter-productive.
"Everyone has to enter the room with an open mind and the acceptance that not everyone will get exactly what they want and that compromises will have to be reached for the good of all involved and for the good of the game."
It is inevitable that concessions will have to be made by all sides if a fresh accord is to be reached.
For the Celtic nations, some of those changes will certainly involve the qualification process and the number of teams included – the English and French clubs favour dropping from 24 to 20 teams – while the English and French clubs will also have to yield some ground in regard to ensuring every nation is represented.
"We (the Celtic nations and Italy) have always been willing to negotiate," Browne insisted. "The problem is that the other side (England and France) haven't been willing to move."
There is now, Browne believes and hopes, a willingness to move. There is, however, a caveat and it incorporates the proposal of a new competition as suggested by the PRL.
"What is non-negotiable is any new competition that undermines the other unions. Ireland, Italy, Wales and Scotland were as one on this."
There is no denying that the appetite exists among English and French clubs for a new competition and, crucially, one where the control of their governing bodies – the RFU and FFR – is reduced, but, as Browne pointed out, they would need the backing of not only their Unions but also the IRB.
It is also in their best interests to have Irish teams involved.
"The biggest crowds for European games in England are when Irish teams are involved. They know that. There is a huge commercial value attached to Irish clubs that can't be dismissed," Browne added.
That fact alone is a hugely valuable bargaining tool for Ireland and, by association, their allies on the ERC Board.
There is one potential stumbling block that all ERC stakeholders except the PRL are still wary of – the television deal signed with BT by the Premiership for the rights to their European fixtures.
"One of the reasons negotiations to date have not gone past first base is because of this deal which no-one knows anything about," he said.
"It's extraordinary that they (PRL) have sold rights to something they don't own and in territories they have no jurisdiction in. As I said, we haven't seen the details, but the deal allegedly also covers Ireland!
"It goes to the point that there is a fundamental lack of understanding in English rugby about how rugby is structured in other countries," Browne added.
The actions of the PRL and, by association, the LNR have certainly left a sour taste in the mouth of the other European stakeholders but, as Browne highlighted, it is in everyone's interest to move forward now and find a solution.
"I left yesterday's meeting encouraged by the belief that everyone in the room genuinely wants to make it work. It will require movement and compromise by all sides. Hopefully, everyone will listen to each other's points of view and we can find a solution that everyone can be happy with," he added.
The meeting concluded with a commitment to convene a new meeting "as soon as is practicable."
That meeting is not expected to come together for a number of weeks because, as one source explained, they will wait to ensure that the "decision-makers" for all parties are available to attend the negotiations so that real progress can be made.
It is anticipated that when the meeting does happen, it will be a case of locking the doors and not emerging until an accord is reached.