Sunday 17 December 2017

TV drama destined to conclude in cliffhanger

The battle between clubs and unions has reached a vital phase, says Brendan Fanning

Some years ago, before Leinster had become European aristocrats and when Connacht still lived in the basement, Jack Nicholson and Marilyn Monroe graced a Heineken Cup function with their presence.

Our delight that Marilyn was alive and well, and that her long sleep must have been one of those bad dreams from Dallas, was tempered by the state of Jack. If his tuxedo looked a little tired, his shoes were positively exhausted. His accent suggested he had walked all the way from Neath.

Hiring lookalike movie stars has always been a handy fallback for pr people looking to liven up a night. We thought ERC's events crew might go down the same road for tomorrow's meeting of interested parties in Rome. So that when the combatants fetch up in the Cavilieri Hotel, they might be greeted by Jimmy Stewart and Marlon Brando: one to pluck the heart strings of the rebels; the other, if Jimmy's doe-eyed approach didn't work, to make them an offer they couldn't refuse.

This is the follow-on to the get-together in Dublin last month, that five-hour affair at which we hoped Premier Rugby (PRL) would put some meat on the bones of their all-you-can-eat deal with BT Vision. Tomorrow is D-Day for Mark McCafferty, their front-of-house man. Having hollered loudly about what his BT deal could do for all involved, now is the time to join up the dots and tell us exactly what the financial picture looks like.

Except it's not that straightforward. ERC chief executive Derek McGrath, a man who if he talks in his sleep must surely use management speak, is ambivalent on the issue of PRL and their proposed deal.

On the one hand, McGrath says they have not observed corporate governance and his first task is to restore that order. On the other, he complains about not having seen any detail on PRL's maverick move. So he is caught between telling the terrorists to lay down their arms before they can sit down at the table, and asking to see what kind of ammo they are packing.

If it turns out to be nuclear stuff, zapping the deal he did with Sky, then McGrath maintains there will be no discomfort on his side of the table.

"I would reject that absolutely because the decision we made to go with Sky, like any commercial dealing that we do, is considered before we make it," he said.


To cut this down to size, McGrath extended by four years the current tv deal with Sky on the basis of the divil you know. And he may have been right. Mark McCafferty may well produce eye-watering figures tomorrow but the truth is nobody knows for how long those cheques could be cashed.

For sure BT is a financial juggernaut, but we won't know if their shareholders are up for the fight for triple play customers -- landline, broadband and digital tv subscribers -- if they don't get a turbo surge in business when their deals with Premier League football and Premiership rugby kick off next season.

Even if they do lure punters into parting with more cash, on top of their Sky subscription, for access to 38 Premier League matches (Sky still have 116, and Match of the Day haven't gone away you know) the whole shooting match reloads in 2015 when the Premier League rights are back on the table.

The landscape is pockmarked with casualties in this business, from BSB (who were eaten up by Sky) to Premium TV, to ITV Digital to Setanta. So if you have been well fed by a broadcaster -- Sky -- who has developed on the job, and who now has a level of expertise that sets the standard, you'd want more than sexy figures to lure you away. You'd want certainty that the shape of those figures is not going to morph into something much less attractive. The next few years, with BT screening a combination of Premier League football and Premiership rugby, will clarify that picture.

"The chances of success and the risks to our business if we were to move in with a new entrant right now at this stage in this commercial cycle we felt was a risk not worth taking," McGrath says. "But it's something that next time round, in the next commercial cycle, we would know a lot more whether a new entrant has actually established itself, and could become a substantial opportunity for us then."

That makes it sound like he looked at BT at the time and knocked them back. However, McGrath says that when they shook the trees at the time, nothing looking like BT fell out. The first they knew of their presence in the marketplace, he says, was when the BT deal with Premier League football was announced after ERC had extended with Sky.

So it looks like Mark McCafferty has a lot of hard selling tomorrow. He will argue about the technicalities of his right to do a deal independent of ERC, or indeed his parent union, the (English) RFU, and that what he is bringing to the table is real and sustainable.

From the outset it has been portrayed as the Anglo-French alliance looking for change, but we suspect it will be France who get what they want after PRL have made all the running. Indeed, LNR, the French clubs' body, have much to be thankful to McCafferty for, as he allowed them to take up a position as peacemakers who will be rewarded for their efforts.

It is inconceivable that the other unions would have considered moving the Heineken Cup forward by a few hours let alone a few weeks to accommodate France's Top 14 run-in, but that's what on the table now.

The Celts may also have to compromise over the structure of the tournament itself. The Anglo-French proposal is for a 20-team operation with six qualifiers coming from the best-placed teams in each of the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12. This offended the ideal of a guaranteed pan-European competition, and moreover it potentially undermined the Six Nations itself, as it opened the door to the Scots and Italians being put out on the street.

The Celts might eventually settle for a combination of allocation and meritocracy, so six guaranteed places would be shared between Italy, Scotland (one each), Wales and Ireland, with the two next best teams, regardless of nationality, making up eight altogether from the Pro12. That's a reduction of two on the current qualification model.

Given the importance of the Heineken Cup -- a much bigger commercial stick than the Pro12 -- they will fight tooth and nail for that eight-team allocation, so getting the Heineken Cup down to 20 teams, as per the Anglo-French plan, is hard to envisage any time soon.

What we have here is a battle between rugby unions, who are desperate to maintain control of a competition that feeds their international teams, and rugby clubs (England and France), who want to run the show themselves because international teams are not their concern. It will take Brando to put the issue to bed. And it will be neither quick nor easy.

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