Nick Cain: Sort out this mess or risk destroying the 2012 vibe

Mark McCafferty has come under withering fire after negotiating a unilateral £152m television rights deal for English club rugby with BT Vision, and the Premiership Rugby chief executive says he expects the flak to get even heavier when he enters the European Rugby Cup (ERC) boardroom alongside Peter Wheeler in Dublin on Tuesday, with the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Italians in a raging froth.
A stream of invective had already been hurled in the direction of McCafferty and the English clubs for calling time on the current Heineken Cup structure after Wednesday’s bombshell announcement, and by Friday, with hard-hat firmly on head, he had this to say: “I’m expecting it to be pretty lively. We understand the reaction – nothing has been a surprise, including the personal attacks – but we knew it would be feisty.”
In the event that the meeting lives up to its billing and is an all-guns-blazing firefight, then McCafferty couldn’t have a better man next to him in the trench than Wheeler, the hard man former England and Lions hooker. However, somehow I doubt that it will be quite the showdown that has been touted, or that the Premiership boys will leave it shot to pieces, as some of the more fanciful pieces written this week have suggested.
The English, in their Premiership clubs guise, say they will come to the table with a persuasive offer, promising a bigger TV rights pie for everyone, and judging by the size of the deal they have done with BT there will be plenty of money on offer to make the Celts and Italians pause for thought.
And, as ever in pro sport, the spat all comes down to filthy lucre.
The new four-year Sky deal rushed out by ERC soon after the BT announcement was made by the Premiership clubs is believed to be worth £70m. Therefore, with £152m to bargain with, it is up to the English to decide just how big a slice of it they reserve for the European Cup – which, just to complicate things, they would like to turn into a three-tier competition, with an elite tournament reduced to 20 teams from 24.
CartoonThe Premiership sweetener – i.e. the amount they are prepared to put into the European Cup TV rights pot – could be as much as £100m with an official at one English club making it clear that they want jaw-jaw rather than war-war. “There is no point in going into the ERC meeting unless today’s revenues are guaranteed to all parties,” he said.
However, there are serious obstacles to be overcome before any agreement can be reached, most of them to do with an emotional defence of the Heineken Cup, and the sense that the English are messing with the jewel in European club rugby’s crown. The Celts and Italians have also taken umbrage at the fact that the English clubs have presumed to sell their own European Cup TV rights, because in their own jurisdictions that is the preserve of the national unions – so there is also an element of ‘English clubs v other countries’ inherent in this row.
The RFU muddied the waters further with a weak statement that they “did not give consent” for the Premiership rights sale, but that they hoped everything would work out fine, and there would be a spirit of co-operation etc, etc.
The reality is that this European Cup power struggle has been in the pipeline for some years, with the English and French clubs stating consistently that they were getting the thin end of the wedge, and asking for change, only to be outvoted continuously by the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian representatives, who are happier with the status quo.
The Anglo-French argument has been two-pronged. Their first complaint is that a competition structure in which the clubs from the Premiership and France’s Top 14 have to qualify, with barely over 50 percent making the cut, whereas those from a third domestic league, the Celtic-Italian PRO12, ten qualify automatically is iniquitous. This is made even less acceptable to the English and French because, historically, some of the Italian, Scottish, Welsh and Irish sides are weaker than the clubs from Europe’s two biggest rugby nations that they are supplanting.
The Anglo-French view is that if the European Cup is truly elite then the teams in it should qualify on the basis of merit, not national boundaries, and therefore there is no reason why the PRO12 should, like them, have any more than six automatic qualifiers. They have indicated, too, that in recognition of the need to encourage the game throughout Europe, there might be an arrangement whereby if, for argument’s sake, either of the two Italian or Scottish regions failed to finish in the top six, their highest finishing team would qualify.
That is perfectly rational, and, in my view, a very strong argument for the qualification structure to be changed.
The other long-standing Anglo-French contention is that ERC has not come close to leveraging the full TV and commercial potential of the European Cup, and the Premiership appear to have made that point pretty eloquently by the sheer scale of their rights deal with BT Vision.
As a consequence of ERC taking no steps to resolve these issues, the English and French clubs gave two years’ notice on June 1, as contractually required, that they would be withdrawing from the existing European Cup structure in 2014. You could argue, therefore, that if ERC suddenly found a juggernaut heading towards them they were fully complicit in releasing the handbrakes.
That puts the game of brinkmanship that unfolded this week in perspective, and there is an element of stalemate in attempts to claim the moral high ground, with ERC claiming that the English clubs had no jurisdiction to sell European TV rights, and the English countering that ERC were in no position to negotiate a new TV deal with France and England withdrawing from the accord.
It is clear that ERC can no longer drag their heels and ignore crucial divisions in their ranks. However, having almost brought about a schism, it is also essential that McCafferty is sharp on his feet and brokers a deal which puts the European Cup back on a sure footing and justifies his huge salary that was rumoured this week to be in the region of £400,000 annually.
What is also certain is that Rugby Union cannot afford another protracted, damaging administrative battle because there is a clear danger that the sport’s image will be tarnished by these internecine feuds in the build-up to landmark events like the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic 7s.
If they are not careful, instead of taking on the impressive legacy left by the 2012 London Olympics, all European rugby’s administrators will do is create an impression that, unlike Lord Coe and company, they are not fit for purpose.

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