A new European rugby landscape is looming on the horizon as teams from England and France press ahead with plans to launch a competition to take the place of the continent’s showcase club tournament, the European Cup.
Not only is the future of the cup competition under threat, but so is the relationship between the clubs and their governing unions, with outright revolt by the teams seemingly not out of the question.
The root of the problem is twofold.
Playing wise, English and French clubs want the competition to be restructured, believing there is an unfair advantage accorded to Celtic League sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
At least 10 of the 12 Celtic League teams — including both Scottish sides, both Italian clubs and a minimum of three each from Wales and Ireland — have a free pass into the competition.
However, only the top six from England’s 12-strong Premiership and France’s Top 14 are guaranteed a place in lucrative cup action.
Then there is the financial issue: a demand of a three-way split of revenues between the three leagues and the real sticking point of the English Premiership’s go-it-alone TV deal with new satellite channel BT Sport.
Despite a mediator, Canadian lawyer Graeme Mew, being nominated by the International Rugby Board (IRB) at the request of the European Rugby Cup (ERC) — the organizers of the European Cup — to help negotiate a way out of the impasse, the English and French clubs took the drastic step of simultaneously launching a rival competition called the Rugby Champions Cup, which they claimed would also be open to clubs from the Celtic League.
The tournament emerged after the ERC announced an “urgent” meeting to discuss the future of their showpiece competition, but scheduled it for Oct. 23.
Meanwhile, IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset, in a statement of support for the current setup, said the global governing body “will ensure we have a European competition which fulfills its name, which is not confiscated by some nations, but has a real international interest.”
“The IRB will defend this principle: not a privatization of a competition in the interest of some people,” he said, adding that “unions maintain pre-eminence over the leagues ... the unions must remain masters of the game.”
A separation of the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR), the French clubs’ umbrella body, from the French rugby federation would be highly unlikely given the former’s legal statutes.
However, the prospect of a breakaway similar to that with which late Australian businessman Kerry Packer upset cricket’s established order in the 1970s seems more likely for the Premiership, given the deal they signed with BT in September last year that included the rights to show English teams’ European games from 2014/2015.
The ERC insists the Premiership did not have a European competition for which it could sell rights and the TV situation is further complicated by the ERC’s own new four-year deal with incumbent broadcasters Sky.
ERC president Jean-Pierre Lux said the BT deal had been a stumbling block in demands for a renegotiation of the competition that started a year ago.
“Unfortunately, talks never started because the Premiership introduced a blocking factor — the contract they signed with BT, which was signed outside all normal rules because all the commercial rights are centralized,” Lux said.
“To save the BT contract, the only solution was that there be another competition,” the former France international added.
Lux said teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, at an ERC meeting last week, “clearly stated they will never take part in such a [rival] tournament.”
He also maintained clubs would never obtain the green light to participate from their unions.
“You saw the French federation’s statement [against the rival competition], I can tell you that the [English] RFU [Rugby Football Union] feel the same,” Lux said.
However, RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie has deliberately refused to take a public stance, saying earlier this month: “I am not going to give a negotiating position in public because I believe it is better to see if we can bring everyone together.”
However, LNR president Paul Goze sounded a warning on Monday, saying he “completely excluded a return to negotiations.”
“They haven’t worked for 15 months and they’re not going to succeed in 15 days,” Goze said. “The creation of a new competition would allow us to get out of this impasse, in which we’ve been stuck for several months.”