Friday 20 April 2018

Heineken Cup future remains up in the air

It has been all but accepted that present Heineken Cup format is unsustainable, says Brendan Fanning

Connacht's Michael Swift, Leinster's Leo Cullen, Ulster's Johann Muller and Munster's Peter O'Mahony at the launch of the Heineken Cup in Dublin last week. Photo: Billy Stickland
Connacht's Michael Swift, Leinster's Leo Cullen, Ulster's Johann Muller and Munster's Peter O'Mahony at the launch of the Heineken Cup in Dublin last week. Photo: Billy Stickland
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

For the first time in the history of the Heineken Cup, last week the tournament launch was held in the offices of the broadcaster. A year ago it was in the fancy new Convention Centre downtown. The year before that it was in what still felt like that new stadium in Lansdowne Road. Last week, however, it was run off in Sky's HQ on Burlington Road in Dublin.

The significance of this is either Sky have such stupendous offices that they desperately wanted to show them off, or it was an exercise in optics: the Heineken Cup is a Sky gig, always has been, and whatever you read about BT Vision this was the veteran broadcaster marking out territory.

That this territory happened to be clouded by a funereal atmosphere was unavoidable. All we were missing was a bit more black and a few mantillas to fit the mood of an event that had V for Valedictory written all over it. Perhaps not.

Later that day one report described the event as having been made awkward by the elephant in the room. On the contrary: while it was a bit uncomfortable in spots, no one tried to hide the presence of the giant mammal with the trunk. Equally, however, nobody could make it kneel down for inspection.

These launches are regional, and at the Cardiff event the previous day – attended by the Welsh and English clubs, and their media – WRU chief executive Roger Lewis gave it both barrels: the emotional bit, about a competition everyone loves; and the business side of things – as in, he was up for anything that might sort this mess out.

"I am prepared to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime – today, tomorrow, next week – to ensure we can arrive at common ground and a way forward together," he said. When he was asked about the Sky deal however, he said it wasn't up for discussion.

How badly do Sky need the Heineken Cup? Desperately. If you watched their Rugby Club programme on Thursday night, you would have got a feel for how hard they are trying to turn loaves and fishes into a banquet.

With no domestic club rugby in their cupboard, and the European kick-off still more than a week away, they used yesterday's Test match in Johannesburg between South Africa and New Zealand to fill the gap. We had the guts of a very tedious hour applied to Ellis Park and what a difficult place it is to visit.

During the course of this you fast-forwarded to next season, when the week-to-week of the Pro12 will keep Sky busy, but the prospect of them not having the Heineken Cup – a tournament which they have shaped – would leave them devastated. The European element is the main plank in their rugby coverage. They can cope with the loss of the Premiership because it wasn't performing for them, no more than it did for ESPN who took it over and then ditched it. They feel a whole lot differently about the Heineken Cup though.

Moreover, they have a contract to support their position. It's worth recalling the sequence around the signing of that contract last year. On June 1, the English and French clubs gave notice to quit the ERC accord which runs out next May; a week later, the ERC board mandated chief executive Derek McGrath to conclude an extension to the existing tv deal with Sky.

Since then, PRL's Mark McCafferty has said that because they had already signalled their intention to jump ship, ERC had no right to project any voyages into the future. Significantly, none of the English or French club reps made that point at the time, and they were at the table when McGrath was given his mandate.

There was also a conditionality clause involved. This means that if there is no agreement to the accord both sides could walk away, but not into the arms of someone else. It gives Sky comfort that the directors who signed up to the deal, including those who had given notice to quit, couldn't jump the fence and do a deal elsewhere.

So while the Sky folks last week were looking a bit downcast, at least they reckon they are not going to have their eye wiped by BT Vision. That broadcaster's name has taken an ironic twist given that more people have seen the recipes for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined than are privy to the details on BT's Vision for Europe.

At first this was understandable: Mark McCafferty wanted to avoid a Dutch auction by showing his hand at the ERC table. We've gone beyond that point a while back however. On the other side of the table, everyone who needed to see the Sky deal has seen it.

In the absence of that clarity, PRL's public relations campaign has filled the void. We've had a steady drip-feed from English club chairmen about the post-apocalyptic landscape that will be Celtic and Italian territories if they don't get on board the Anglo-French train.

Back in the days when Big Ben was fronting Dunnes Stores in this country, his every interview was an opportunity to get across the message: 'Dunnes Stores better value beats them all'. Never mind the question, concentrate on the answer. Michael O'Leary is fond of the same tactic for Ryanair. In the case of PRL, the public message playing on a loop since the season started is: 'ERC is dead, we only deal with the living'.

Given the jitteriness of the Celts, privately at first, it has been working. Then publicly they have started coming across as a bit desperate.

Mark Dodson of the SRU last week: "I think it's been wrongly portrayed that we've been maintaining a position. It's a high-stakes game for everyone but we are not ruling anything in or anything out."

Eh, okay. Coming hard on the heels of the co-ordinated statements from the Celtic and Italian unions, which didn't mention ERC anywhere, it looked like the rebels were on a roll. These statements and positions, this willingness to consider anything and everything from finance to structure – except the Sky deal, which is locked down legally – is a country mile away from where the whole process started 16 months ago.

Even IRFU chief executive Philip Browne, when we asked him on Friday, was unable to state unequivocally that ERC's future as a body wasn't up for debate. He expressed confidence in their performance yet fell short of saying their survival wasn't an issue. For this you'd have to credit the focus and ruthlessness of the PRL campaign.

The IRB will meet in Vancouver this week with the executive committee getting together on Thursday. It is not as simple as chairman Bernard Lapasset slapping the English and French clubs back into line, as Syd Millar did in 2007 when last they were threatening to do a runner. We're now at a stage where it has been all but accepted that the financial divvy-up and the qualifying format of the Heineken Cup is unsustainable.

And that's a short hop from a reconstituted ERC, with a shift in voting rights so that the clubs have the power to drive the competition commercially, but the unions retain control of governance. It may well be called something other than ERC, and it may be located outside of Ireland – if it is tax-efficient – and with a new chief executive. It won't however have a new broadcaster.

This would not satisfy the real agenda of PRL and the French LNR which is to have ultimate control of their own destiny. Painting the club owners as cash-grabbing megalomaniacs is convenient if you are blindly beating the unions' drum for them, but hardly accurate.

While ERC were putting it out there that they had injected €520m into the professional game since 1995, we wondered how much cash the club owners had stumped up in that time. They stepped in to play players' wages when their parent unions were sitting on their hands, and after years of being put in their box, would you believe it they quite like the idea of driving the bus themselves.

Their problem is the road is littered with too many legal speedbumps. They have succeeded in scaring the old guard to the negotiating table, but getting up and walking away from that table is a logistical nightmare so many are the laws, regulations and contracts that would need to be unravelled and then replaced.

In December 1998, when Ulster were on their way to winning a European Cup from which English clubs had excluded themselves, a representative of those English clubs said this: "If anyone thinks we are coming back in with ERC still in place, they are seriously mistaken. We've said we can't work with ERC and we mean it."

They managed to work with them for another 15 years. If that relationship is to continue, in whatever form, the only safe bet is that Sky will be first up to cover it.

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