Good ship ERC still afloat but English clubs threaten boycott
Heineken Cup reprieve after French union chief gets tough on rebels to leave Premiership sides high and dry, writes Brendan Fanning
A few weeks ago in these pages we described French federation president Pierre Camou as a traditionalist, a survivor, and a man with both barrels pointed at the Rugby Champions Cup (RCC), the new European tournament proposed by the clubs of England and France.
That wasn't strictly accurate. It would have been closer to the mark to say that he was covering two targets with the same weapon: one cartridge for his own clubs if they didn't toe the line, as drawn in the sand by him; and the other for the RCC, no matter what happened.
On Thursday night he was able to train the shotgun on RCC alone and let fly. Once the clubs announced that they had accepted his terms and would stick with what they knew, the sideshow was over.
From early in this dispute the balance of power lay in the hands of the French clubs. Two things happened to divorce them from their English partners: first, most of their demands were met regarding the structure, qualification and divvy-up of cash from the Heineken Cup; and second, Camou kicked them into line using the domestic accord between the French federation and its clubs as a hob-nailed boot.
So the LNR, the clubs body, shrugged their shoulders and told their English partners they were getting off the bus.
"No, we're not doing a U-turn," LNR boss Paul Goze said last week. "We're going backwards because we are intelligent. I don't see why now that we've got everything, that we would move in a direction that would provoke serious conflict. You've got to be pragmatic. I've used assertive language but it's not because I'm saying it that I really meant it." According to the journalist who interviewed him, he was smiling for the last part.
PRL are far from happy. They were almost at their destination when the French told them they were getting off. Interestingly, they say they will plough ahead with a party for one. Last year when this was all kicking off, one of the English club chairmen told us it might come to a point where their clubs would have to tough it out and go it alone, with an expanded Premiership filling in the gaps left by vacant European weekends. Well, here we are. PRL chairman Mark McCafferty, in today's Sunday Telegraph, says that he expects the English clubs to be ploughing a lone furrow in 2014/15. "It's the clubs' call on that," he said. "But from my perspective I can't see at the moment how it would be feasible for us to be in 2014/15 European competitions, if the unions, as they have said, are going to run a 20-team competition through ERC."
If they maintain that line then his clubs will lose out financially. Even allowing for the factored increase in their BT contract, subtracting the Heineken Cup cash will leave them out of pocket. PRL are due to meet this week and the potential financial hit will be top of the agenda.
Across the channel there are big meetings coming down the line also for the French federation (FFR) and LNR, where both will ratify at their AGMs the U-turn of last week. That was Camou's doing.
The most pressing issue for the French clubs is what happens in their own back yard. How they conduct their daily business is governed by a convention with the FFR. The last of these expired on June 30 this year but was extended until this month to allow extended negotiations. Now time is up.
The convention includes a chapter on the participation of French clubs in Europe. Camou was adamant that he wouldn't sign off on the convention until the European element was sorted – and by sorted he meant that the clubs would drop the RCC idea and stay in the ERC fold. When you look at the concessions already made by the Celtic and Italian unions within ERC, set against the grief of going to war with their own federation, there was no decision to be made.
It seems that war isn't quite off the agenda yet, however, and Camou is reloading. In his interview with a website last week, published the day after the clubs agreed to rejoin the Heineken Cup, Goze had a bit to say about playing in that competition only if their English colleagues were in the same game. Moreover he laid down clear rules about what they would and wouldn't wear on the issue of the future governance of ERC.
The LNR and FFR are meeting on Wednesday with Europe top of the agenda. It would be a surprise if Camou didn't give Goze both barrels, for the federation president is on a bit of a roll at the minute. Perhaps Goze was trying to choreograph a dignified exit for his English allies, when he was laying down the law about the future of European rugby, but it sounded like he was putting to sea in a sieve.
"On the question of governance, for me it's done," he said. "I'm working on the principle that the people I'm looking in the eye are trustworthy. If from next year in this structure of transition the new governance is put in place, and if it's also put in place in the final structure, then Pierre Camou will have nothing to fear. He will have reason to be fearful if following this agreement we've made, he does a U-turn. I'm working off the principle that the FFR says what it does and does what it says. There is no ambiguity."
In short, the governance is a nightmare. At least it is if you want to change it. At one point it was suggested that a remodelled ERC could row in with the Six Nations office, but the French reckon that's too Anglo for them. FIRA–AER, the regional body which develops rugby in Europe, one rung down the ladder from the Six Nations, is unpalatable to the Brits, who reckon there is too much French influence there. The UEFA model has been put forward also, but the Celts and Italians would rather, not surprisingly, that things stay pretty much as they are.
Except that nothing will be as it was. This whole saga has shaken ERC to its core, and they will concede further on commercial issues surrounding the tournaments before a new accord is signed. That point is still some way off, not least because PRL, the English clubs body, will have to square away the European element of the deal they did with BT Vision.
"The problems are not over," says Marcel Martin, one of the architects of European competition along with Tom Kiernan and the late Vernon Pugh back in 1995. "Something that has not been solved is the problem of the dual contracts: one signed by ERC with Sky, and one signed by PRL with BT. That now is up to the English to get out of it, one way or the other. The ball is in their camp, totally."
Our understanding from early enough on this journey has been that this may not be as difficult as commonly perceived. Why would BT Vision, who are making a decent fist of the Aviva Premiership and are happy with how it's going, make the European element of their relationship with PRL to be a deal breaker? Clearly it will be easier for PRL to get out of a contract for something that doesn't and won't exist than for ERC to pull the Sky plug on something that does.
Next season has been billed as a period of transition. The journey now looks a good deal different to when PRL and LNR were making all the running in this dispute. At journey's end we will likely have six nations on board, despite what Mark McCafferty says he is expecting from his clubs this week.
Of course the English are unhappy – it has been their default since the get-go; the French will continue to be ambivalent; and the Welsh will be like the sad git who sits at the bar making hopeful eye contact with everyone who is buying a drink.
"My personal belief?" asks Patrick Wolff of LNR. "It is a common interest for the Celts, for the English, for the French, to keep up with this competition. I can't imagine that this competition will not last. It has taken years – and I have been involved in this story for a long time – now can you imagine in France to explain to Clermont Ferrand that they won't play against Leinster, even if Leinster wins too often for us, or won't play Ulster or won't play Harlequins? From a sporting issue it is the level which is necessary between the domestic club competitions and the international game. I think everybody will be reasonable at the end."
At last, the end is in sight.