Planet Rugby

Greed trumps growth in Euro saga

07th December 2013 13:36

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brokenHeineken cup trophy

The Heineken Cup will never be the same again

And so it continues. The stramash surrounding the future of European rugby gets more tedious, more trying and more frustrating by the week.

In the past seven days, it was confirmed - to no-one's great surprise - that the English clubs will not take part in next season's revised Heineken Cup, instead opting to explore "other options".

Meanwhile, in Wales, what should be another stellar brace of Heineken Cup weekends are being overshadowed by the prospect of the Welsh Rugby Union and the four Welsh regions doing legal battle over the future of the Welsh domestic game amid the ongoing "player exodus".

Now, it's difficult when postulating on such matters not to cover ground trodden into submission by armies of rugby scribes before, but it is worth recapping the two main issues the initial Anglo-French breakaway sought addressed.

Chiefly, they felt both the qualification format and distribution of revenue unfairly generous towards the Pro12 clubs. These are valid issues, and the unions have - on the face of things at least - shown willingness to adapt and comply with their proposals.

ERC, the body in charge of running the Heineken and Challenge Cups, must shoulder a portion of the blame too. They had time enough to bring the relevant stakeholders to the negotiating table long before Mark McCafferty, Paul Goze and co picked up their ball and stormed off shouting that "the ERC is dead" as they went. It is under their stewardship an unsavoury spat snowballed into all-out warfare, and the English group now rebuffs any notion of participating in an ERC-run tournament.

But this latest PRL statement confirming the Premiership side's departure signalled the dagger to the heart of the Heineken Cup as we know it. Call it cutting off the nose to spite the face, I think it's utter madness.

Some will laud the body for sticking to its guns and refusing to play ball under an ERC-run tournament. But while those in charge of the Euro group have hardly covered themselves in glory, the continued non-participation of the English heavyweights now appears motivated by greed and power above all else, with a lucrative BT Sport television deal still high on their agenda.

Of course, when BT first arrived on the scene, their CEO Mark Watson proclaimed that "we saw in rugby an opportunity to own a sport exclusively, at least at club level". Though Watson has since claimed those remarks were published out of context, therein lies the problem.

I have no doubt the range of rugby coverage BT offers is excellent and every bit as popular as the viewing figures suggest. They can certainly boast a first-rate range of presenters, commentators and pundits, and more people watching rugby is unquestionably a good thing. But BT is a business, and a business in the ruthless world of telecommunications and sports broadcasting.

Plainly, their aim is to seize control from Sky of the game's prized assets, neutralising their competition, and then - a cynic may suspect - jack up the subscription fee.

The prospect of a multi-million pound BT television deal for a new Euro tournament surely had the respective Premiership club owners rubbing their hands with glee.

Precious few of these clubs turn a profit, and there have been suggestions that the chiefs are entitled to set their sights on something approaching a return for their investment. Really?

If any of the above entered the world of English rugby club ownership and expected a bumper pay-day, their considerable business acumen must be far less than advertised.

The Top 14 is where the real financial clout lies, and there are glaring disparities between the haves and have-nots of that particular league.

No, to safeguard the development and growth of the game; I believe the unions - while far from ideal guides - must remain the "masters". If not, and control is ceded to the club-owners, we risk heading down a dangerous path. Comparisons with the current state of Premiership football are not as far-fetched as they sound.

But in reality, it wouldn't have taken an awful lot of negotiating to come up with a solution that best fit all and curtailed months of mud-slinging, posturing and threats before they had gotten going.

Now, we find ourselves facing up to life without the world's greatest club competition, and that is a sheer travesty. At least for the moment, greed continues to trump growth in the bizarre sphere of European rugby.

By Jamie Lyall

@JLyall93

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