25 October 2013

ERC caves in, but is it too late?

Yesterday the ERC completed their meeting in Dublin and proposed a new format for the Heineken Cup. Ironically the PRL and the LNR were not present. But what is even more ironic is the outcome of the meeting. The ERC have effectively caved in completely on the two major demands that precipitated the dispute in the first place. Namely that qualification for the tournament would become a meritocracy for everybody and the financial split would be evenly distributed between the PRL, LNR and Pro 12 teams.

Had the ERC acquiesced from the outset to the demands of the PRL/LNR, the whole dispute would have probably never occurred. Had the PRL/LNR gotten what they wanted they would have had no reason but to stay within the ERC. But the ERC decided to dig in and take a calculated risk that seems to have backfired. It was a pretty swift response from the French and English when they pushed the nuclear button and set up a new tournament to directly oppose the Heineken Cup.

It is possible to take the cynical view that the French/English block were hoping the ERC would dig in and that would give them the excuse to walk away. If that was their plan from the outset they certainly created the crisis they were looking for. Either way it is hard to believe the ERC will bring the French and English back to the table just because they have ultimately given the French and English what they initially asked for.

Unfortunately this dispute has moved onto a whole new level. This dispute is about the governance and ultimate control of the premier rugby club cross-border competition in the northern hemisphere. The Heineken Cup is controlled by the ERC, which is controlled by the Rugby Unions. The new Rugby Champions Cup is controlled by the clubs, which makes this a struggle between the club owners in England and France and the 6 Nations Rugby Unions.

The club owners ultimately see this dispute as an opportunity of taking control of the club game in Europe and more importantly create the opportunity to at last make some money from their investment in the oval ball game. The unions see this dispute as an erosion of their power over the game in Europe and all the potential problems that go along with not controlling the club game.

After a lot of megaphone diplomacy and statements of intent from both sides the first major fissure appeared just two days ago when the Welsh clubs said they were prepared to play in the Rugby Champions Cup. If the Pro 12 teams were ever to break ranks, the Welsh were always favourites to be the first to jump ship. They are under huge financial pressure at club and union level and the possibility of a player exodus to France is no longer a possibility but a reality.

Also, the Welsh were always the unhappiest in the Pro 12. They have, on more than one occasion over the years, done a lot of sabre rattling about leaving the Celtic nations and joining the Aviva Premiership. Whether this was ever a possibility is a moot point, but it just goes to show the Welsh state of mind.

It is also particularly suspicious that the Welsh announce they were abandoning ship the day before the ERC meeting in Dublin. One would have thought they would have at least waited until discovering the outcome of the ERC meeting yesterday before making such a major strategic decision. This is a meeting they were attending and would have a strong voice at.

One can only assume from their premature announcement that they want out of the Heineken regardless and are sold on the Rugby Champions Cup no matter what format the Heineken Cup were to take.

This could be the mortal blow the English and French were hoping to land on the ERC. If it turns out to be so it will be the most ironic of developments as it has come from one of the Celtic nations.

Given the ERC have now caved in on the format and finances of the Heineken Cup and the Welsh have jumped ship, it raises the question have the ERC been broken? It is possible it could be the beginning of the end. But there are a few more rounds to go in this heavyweight bout.

When the ERC went and negotiated their deal with BSkyB, it was with a mandate from everybody around the ERC table, which included the English and the French. The English and French then went and negotiated a new deal with BT Sports after the Sky deal had been agreed. Why did they take that action after mandating the ERC to negotiate a deal with Sky? Or what’s more pertinent did they have the right to cut a new deal with BT Sport after the fact. The rights and wrongs of that decision will more than likely be decided by a judge.

Ultimately, this dispute will probably be resolved in the courts. In the meantime it looks like the ERC may have caved in too late to resolve the Heineken Cup. That cave in and the departure of Wales makes it look like the ERC are on the ropes at this point in the fight. On that basis it is hard to imagine the French and English backing away if they believe victory is in sight. The ultimate goal of controlling the greatest club rugby competition in the world will be too much for the club owners to walk away from, now that they feel they can see the try line.