Old School's Wake-up call
ERC are lucky the Anglo-French gun is loaded with blanks, says Brendan Fanning
Late last season when the European rugby row had turned into a soap opera with irregular episodes, we spoke to one of the senior figures in the English club game about what the next instalment might bring.
By that stage the battle lines had been clearly marked out: the Anglo-French alliance wanted change; the ERC establishment wanted none of it; and between them there was a vast chasm to be filled.
It wasn't so much what this man said about the clubs' position as the way he said it. First there was a long sigh, and then a declaration that the clubs were getting close to a point where they would have to bite the bullet and go it alone. He sounded like he was tired of giving the same message to his colleagues around the Premiership table.
The events of the last week would suggest they all understood the message and are prepared to act on it. None moreso than their front man, Mark McCafferty.
If you are looking to the next meeting of the stakeholders in European rugby – representatives of clubs and unions alike – as the D-Day in this saga, a forum with an experienced facilitator where the doors are locked when all the key decision-makers have taken their seats, and not opened again until something tangible is down on paper, then consider this from McCafferty two days ago.
"From our point of view the ERC is over," he says. "I don't know how many ways we can say that to people . . . We've given it 15 months, I think everybody has made the best effort but it's clear that we have different views on how things should be and we'll just have to accept that and get on. Our clubs have been very clear, we can't spend the next 15 months talking around certain issues. We and everyone else have to get ready for 2014/'15. Time goes very quickly and we need to be prepared."
Well, not that quickly for it seems like an age since this game kicked off.
Last September, McCafferty unveiled a tv deal for his clubs with the market's newest player, BT Vision, for a whopping €189m over four years. If you're looking for a comfort blanket then that qualifies as snug, and for years both the English and French had been distinctly uncomfortable in a club tournament driven by unions.
That had followed the announcement three months earlier that the Anglo-French alliance wanted a whole new European vista once the extant accord ran out in 2014. That vision of a new Europe is a scaled-back Heineken Cup, from 24 to 20 teams, with six qualifiers coming from each of the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12, topped off by the winners of the previous season's Heineken and Amlin Cups. Moreover, they outlined a third-tier competition – which everyone seems to have forgotten about now – which would mop up any other club that had a half-decent pitch and a bag of balls.
If the structure was one thing then its financing was another. Under the current ERC arrangement, the cash is split between the six unions with 24 per cent each going to England and France – all of which is kicked back directly to their clubs – and the remaining 52 per cent goes to the four nations who make up the Pro12.
In the World According to Mark, the divvy-up would be a three-way split between each of the three qualifying leagues: Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12. While the percentages clearly would slide for the Pro12 teams, the line was that BT's moneybags would mean more for everyone.
The figure put forward by PRL for the European element of the BT agreement is "north of €83.5m" for three years. This figure takes into account what the French would bring to the table from their end of the broadcasting deal. It's impossible to know what this would mean for Ireland's provinces – if they were on board – without knowing the exact figure and how it would be divided, but we aren't even close to that yet. And the fact that there has never been any meat put on those bones is a serious weakness in the PRL plan.
First there will be some lawyers who need paying. Essentially we have two broadcasters signed on for the one product: Sky, to a tournament whose participation accord stretches only as far as 2014; and the other, BT Vision, to a competition that doesn't exist. In the middle is who said what to whom, and if they were entitled to open their mouths in the first place.
McCafferty makes like the Sky deal is a meteorite that rained down after he and his French pals decided they were not long for this union.
"Our perspective on that is that the Sky contract has nothing to do with us," he says. "We've been very clear on that – our position is very clear; we don't think ERC entered into that contract correctly and the French clubs believe the same thing. Anyway, given that ERC from our perspective is terminating at the end of next year, whatever they have done is entirely an issue for them. Our contract with BT has nothing to do with ERC."
McCafferty justifies this on the basis that the Sky deal came after PRL and LNR said they were jumping ship. At the board meeting of June 6, however, ERC chief exec Derek McGrath was mandated to conclude negotiations with Sky, not open them, and the English and French were a party to this. Moreover, if their announcement of impending exit was so determined, why not get up and walk away from the table at that point?
Then there is the issue of their own subsequent deal with BT Vision. The (English) Rugby Union – wary of another row with their clubs ahead of the World Cup in 2015 – were ambiguous on the legality of PRL selling a proposed tournament when they were tied to an existing one.
Former RFU chairman Martyn Thomas claimed last week however that there is a clause in PRL's agreement with their parent union that they are tied to ERC competitions until 2015, and that they cannot play in any other until that runs its course.
"There's a contractual obligation there that the RFU can enforce," he said. Trouble for ERC is that the RFU haven't been keen on enforcing anything.
There are two escape routes now for ERC. The first and most likely is to test the strength of the English-French axis by giving the French what they want. So as well as a qualifying system based on meritocracy and a revised financial share-out they could also have a calendar that suits the Top 14, leaving them to have their domestic shootout as the sign-off before we get to high summer. Unlike PRL, LNR's boss Paul Goze has not done a tv deal for an, as yet, uncreated tournament. The French are not as far down the road as the English on this.
The second is to lobby the IRB to come down heavy on the unions of France and England to get their clubs back into line. For the IRB, think of a Government being asked to wade into a dirty industrial dispute. And for the unions, think of bodies who so far have been hands-off to the point of having them in the air.
Given that all of this is a power play that threatens Test rugby in Europe they might want to pick up a cudgel of some sort for the thrust of this PRL and French drive offside is to have a club competition governed by clubs, not unions. Test rugby is not their concern so neither is the preservation of the weaker Scottish and Italian sides who will be in danger of extinction, with the knock-on effect that will have at the top level.
"I disagree with that fundamentally," McCafferty says. "First of all I would not characterise them as weaker in any way, shape or form."
Given the facts, this is a fairly ludicrous stance, but anyway.
"That's not our perspective on it. I think the potential is significant. If you go back to the proposals that we put in over the last 14/15 months it would have been easy, if we had only been interested in the interests of English clubs, we would have gone straight away to the Anglo-French competition, from a purely financial and commercial point of view that would have produced the biggest returns for the English clubs."
This too is flawed. Certainly England and France have the biggest commercial markets, but punters want top-quality competition. The notion of parking Leinster, Munster and now Ulster in some field behind a hedge is not going to increase viewership. Its effect on those three, and Connacht, would be catastrophic.
Their fate, and that of the European game, will be determined by whoever climbs down. This story has been illustrative of how out of touch ERC is with what's going on in its constituent clubs. There is too much of the old-school union mentality about that organisation which has no offices in either England or France, its biggest contributors.
They are highly mobilised now but only because they understand at last the seriousness of what McCafferty and the French have planned. Luckily for them, PRL's weapon of choice – the BT Vision deal – may be loaded with blanks.
Our clear understanding is that they are delighted with their sponsorship of the Premiership, and could cope happily if McCafferty were unable to get the European leg over the line. Remember this is a player new to the market, and they don't know how successful they will be when the piggyback deals end for viewers and you have to sign up front if you want to see their product.
In four years' time, when BT have had a lot more experience of delivering the game to what they hope will be a mass audience, perhaps they will be far hungrier about adding European fare to their domestic diet. Or maybe they will have withdrawn from rugby altogether.
In the context of this battle, that lack of hunger will be critical. And it will be enough for Sky, the experienced campaigners in this, to prevail. In which case ERC will dodge the bullet. Next time the gun is loaded, however, the comfy head office may be located somewhere other than Dublin and with a whole new outlook on life.
June 1, 2012: English and French clubs give notice that they want to leave the accord which governs European competition and runs out in 2014.
June 6: ERC board mandate chief executive Derek McGrath to conclude new tv deal with Sky
September 12: PRL announce tv contract with BT Vision for domestic rugby (starting 2013/14) and European rugby (2014/15) both extending to 2017.
September 12: Hours after the PRL announcement, ERC unveil Sky deal extending to 2018, four years beyond end of existing accord.
September 10, 2013: PRL and LNR declare they will set up new cross-border competition starting 2014/15.