Friday 22 November 2019

David Kelly: Stars like Heaslip could be packing their bags if Heineken Cup row spirals out of control

David kelly

As with the other, rather more pressing continental crisis of a financial nature, the first thoughts from home are naturally selfish -- what does all this bickering and brinkmanship mean for Ireland?

The answer, should the doomsday scenario occur -- i.e. the imminent demise of the Heineken Cup as we know it -- is quite simple.

The consequences could be catastrophic.

The entanglement involving English Premiership rugby clubs and the Heineken Cup organisers, conducted through the medium of a familiar sports rights bidding war, could have genuinely distressing financial implications for professional rugby in this country.

It may seem like a familiar shoot-out between rival TV companies, but the high-stakes BT/BSkyB wrangle over European club rugby rights could result in the loss of millions of euro annually in revenue for the sport here.

Especially if the English clubs, seemingly so determined to run off with the ball and play their own game, manage to persuade the reluctant French and the perennially cash-stricken Welsh to go with them.

A Heineken Cup without English involvement could be tolerable for one season -- as it was in 1999 when Ulster won the competition during a temporary English boycott -- but hardly sustainable beyond that.

The real nightmare scenario would see England, France and Wales form a breakaway European competition that leaves Ireland and Scotland completely out of the loop.

Struggle

As with any doomsday scenario, few expect the worst to happen -- but even a cursory glance at the potential consequences reveals a bleak future for Irish rugby.

Ireland's revenues would dip alarmingly -- €6m annually is the figure that has been suggested -- and Munster, Leinster and Ulster would all struggle to make ends meet.

The IRFU don't budget for their Heineken Cup income -- they received an unexpected €2m extra last year after Leinster and Ulster reached the final -- but without it they would be less able to financially sustain the provinces.

The days of the money-spinning Heineken Cup weekends in Belfast, Dublin, Galway and Limerick could be a thing of the past -- last year the Heineken Cup was worth some €100m to these cities alone.

Connacht, who are set to enjoy the substantial financial and promotional benefits of a second successive season in the Heineken Cup, could see their future plunged into doubt for a second time in a decade.

The central contracts of international players, already reduced from over 30 to just 20, may be scaled back still further, and the IRFU's big earners like Jamie Heaslip would see their salaries reduced dramatically.

The bleakest scenario would see players like Heaslip flee the country entirely, for what use would an interminable series of inter-provincials or games against Scottish teams be to such a competitor?

Thus, while the strength of the provinces would be diluted due to an absence of Anglo-French or Welsh competition, a similar slump might affect the international side.

And why should Heineken continue to sponsor a competition that may have utterly lost its fizz? Sponsors would run a mile from a competition denuded of English or French involvement.

The IRFU have already had experience of facing down real danger to their financial wellbeing two years ago, in the midst of Green Minister Eamonn Ryan's free-to-air proposals -- ironically involving Sky's Heineken Cup coverage.

Then, the IRFU warned that: "Loss of revenue would not be recouped through other revenue streams as these are currently at maximum and under pressure in a depressed and shrinking commercial market."

Sources within Irish rugby seem confident that this current storm can be weathered.

After all, the IRB would have to sanction any breakaway by the English; and, in any event, the French, despite their protestations, retain a fondness for the Heineken Cup as it stands and would not be in a position to unilaterally sell their rights in a similar fashion.

The pressing issue is how the competition is governed -- i.e. whether Pro12 clubs should all gain automatic qualification to the main competition, while French and English clubs do not -- and who gets the money?

And, as the new BT deal demonstrates, whether there could be even more money if the competition were run differently. Or run by someone differently.

Currently, the system whereby 85pc of the €50m revenue is shared equally -- whether you're in England or Italy -- with only 15pc dished out on a merited basis, doesn't satisfy the English, or the French for that matter.

Neither are they satisfied with the manner in which the Irish clubs have been able to wrap their players in cotton wool to such a degree that they have managed to win five of the last seven Heineken Cup titles.

But then Irish rugby is organised differently in that the IRFU governs the clubs and its players. In England and France, the clubs are stand-alone entities, and most of the English clubs are losing money.

This money-spinning BT deal seems to strengthen the English position in negotiations, even if they have spent millions on rights to a competition that doesn't yet exist and has no teams entered in it, ahead of a crucial board meeting of Heineken Cup organisers ERC in Dublin next Tuesday.

That meeting will be conducted with the renegade English insisting that it is not about the money. Which, of course, means that it's all about the money. And that's the worry from an Irish perspective in the unlikely event that they get left behind.

The irony of Ireland's extraordinary success in the Heineken Cup ultimately contributing to its demise is not lost on rugby supporters.

The Sky hasn't fallen in on Irish rugby yet. Far from it. But the rules are changing all the time and there will be serious consequences for Irish rugby whatever the outcome.

Irish Independent

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