Friday 15 November 2019

Desperate for bigger slice of pie

Premiership CEO's histrionics are clearly all about the money, writes Neil Francis

Before we examine the vagaries of perception, let's make the assumption that most of you will have seen, in some form of media, the statement made by Mark McCafferty, CEO of Premiership Rugby, that his organisation intends to pull its teams out of the Heineken Cup after next year's competition. I do not know Mr McCafferty but I am assured he is an intelligent man who has been around the track and who has a reasonable command of the commercial complexities that exist in the ever-expanding paradigm that is European professional rugby.

There is a provision in the ERC shareholders' accord which allows any stakeholder to negotiate or re-negotiate anything within that charter two years prior to the designated conclusion of the seven-year accord which was incorporated in 2007.

Seven years is a long time and it is good corporate or sporting governance to be able to change something that made sense a good while ago -- particularly if the business model and revenues have flourished, which they have. In 2005/'06, ERC posted revenues of circa €25m. Last year this more than doubled. That is a big pot.

When they say "it's not the money, it's the principle," you can be certain it's about the money. But in this case, McCafferty's histrionics are, unfortunately for his umbrella organisation, more than just about gaining extra money for his constituent members in the Aviva Premiership. The arguments put forward are so transparently risible I didn't have to second-guess the real reasons for his lukewarm consommé of an argument.

McCafferty asserts that the format is too heavily weighted in favour of Pro12 sides. McCafferty thinks that the fact that Leinster or Munster rest or rotate their squad for Rabo, which leaves them free to concentrate on winning the Heineken Cup, gives them an unfair advantage. He thinks it is not a level playing field and as a consequence England and France will pull out and form an Anglo-French competition.

In and around 2003, Wasps and Tigers won Heineken Cups based on the fact that they were seen as battled-hardened. Now that they are not winning, it's because Celtic sides are too fresh. England's co-conspirators France, through the FFR and LNR who don't really seem too bothered about the issue just now, might tell him that Toulouse and Clermont have such large, quality squads that they could field a completely different side each week in one calendar month and still win all their matches. They are as fresh as they want to be going into the Heineken.

The French are in it for the ride because they would look silly if Les Rosbifs came away with a bigger slice of the pie so it suits the French at the moment. The thing is, the French have really bought into the Heineken. An Anglo-French Cup? Worcester Warriors v Mont-de-Marsan -- maybe 200 people at that one. Both sides playing their reserves. It's not going to happen.

McCafferty also states that there is no pressure in the Pro12 because there is no relegation. There is, if I am not mistaken, no relegation in the Aviva either. Newcastle Falcons finished last in the Premiership last year but the powers that be tried to maintain the status quo. After a protracted and embarrassing episode in the courts, London Welsh were eventually permitted to join the Premiership after signing their oaths in blood on the efficacy of promotion and relegation. Natural selection only came about through the courts -- what a crock.

Italian and Scottish rugby would die on the vine if their provincial teams were unable to compete in the Heineken Cup. The Six Nations -- already a sick puppy -- would be in serious trouble if these two nations couldn't get serious and meaningful sub-international competition. That fact does not even come up on McCafferty's insular radar.

He thinks the competition should be merit-based, fair enough. I note that the Exeter Chiefs, who won 12 of their games in the Aviva Premiership and finished fifth, which apparently entitles them on merit to come to Dublin to face Leinster on Saturday, October 13 in the first match in Pool 5. The only thing that is standing between Exeter and a rapid-eye-movement nightmare of a thrashing is that Leinster might not be fully up to speed or indeed battle-hardened; certainly their top-tier players will not be fully up to pace. If Leinster had left their contingent in New Zealand for the whole summer playing the All Blacks three times a week and went home in an air ambulance to face Exeter, they would still put 50 points on them. Whichever way you look at it, it's not a level playing field. Exeter have qualified by right, but they are not good enough to be in this competition.

The fact is that the Aviva Premiership is in trouble. The product stinks and the games are very difficult to watch. The quality of fare is awful and I would guess that only Leicester and at a push Northampton are making any money. Saracens are making the Greek balance sheet look healthy. The RFU subvents and subsidises them heavily and the English clubs, desperate for cash, are looking around for a bigger share of the pie because their ailing club game needs it badly. The ERC, with its burgeoning revenues, was an obvious and easy target.

McCafferty says he is not "sabre-rattling"; let's see your sabre so. There was never a clearer-cut case of somebody throwing a grenade into the room with the pin still in it. Their motives are obvious.

No question, there is room for posturing and shadow boxing before you get down to the commercial issues, but I find McCafferty's pathetic utterings irksome and depressingly familiar and tiresome. To threaten this wonderful competition in this manner without any foundation or substance or recognition of the consequences shows a recklessness which could be borrowed from the Jack MacMurphy school of ethics and business practice. Heineken, the competition sponsors, a global brand and a serious organisation, are probably thinking 'who are these clowns?'

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