Saturday 24 March 2018

Pressure on McCafferty to reveal his BT hand

This week's ERC meeting will be vital

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

By the time Wednesday's meeting of ERC stakeholders wraps up in a Heathrow Hotel, you would hope the vapour trail will morph into something like white smoke.

What started in Dublin in September has since shifted to Rome, then Paris, then back to Dublin, before this week's get-together in London. All those air miles and nothing to show for it. It is inconceivable that yet another meeting can conclude without significant movement one way or the other.

Currently, the Celts are talking tough about forcing PRL, the body that represents English clubs, to toe the line or step back altogether. They have dismissed the tv deal announced by PRL with BT Vision on the basis that they had no right to do it in the first place.

PRL's failure to put meat on the bones of that deal, which is claimed to be worth £100m over four years, as opposed to the £70m contract extension which ERC signed with Sky, has cost them momentum in the public relations battle.

If PRL had countered the charge of doing an illegal solo run with a step-by-step guide to get-rich-quick rugby with BT Vision, then ERC would have found themselves in an awkward spot.

In which case, how many stones did ERC look under when coming up with the extension to the Sky contract if PRL could drag in BT Vision for far more loot? As long as the details of the deal were off the table, however, ERC could credibly claim that PRL were blowing a lot of hot air and providing no warmth. If indeed that is the case, then PRL chief executive Mark McCafferty will soon feel the chill wind that will cost him his job. If not, then surely Wednesday in London is the time to show some of his hand.

English clubs want more control over the way the Heineken Cup is structured and financed. They have frequently questioned the commercial performance of ERC, and believe the only reason the latest Sky deal was concluded was so ERC could maintain control of the event until the next accord comes up for agreement.

They threatened to walk away when the previous accord was up for debate in 2006 and were stared down. If they suffer the same humiliation again then the war for control of European rugby will be over, never mind this battle.

McCafferty has two options now: find a way to reveal enough of the BT deal without compromising its commercial content so that momentum swings his way; or else walk away.

The latter would mean England expanding the Premiership to bring in, say, Bristol, Leeds and Newcastle, and altering the structure to fill the nine weekends freed up by their exclusion from Europe. We're presuming here that BT's vision would not be blinded by there being no European element, and that the English clubs have the will to make the walk.

The former would be a game changer, for the one thing in professional sport that concentrates everyone's mind is money. The latter would alter the landscape dramatically too. Mark McCafferty needs to lay out the cash.

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