In June last year the top rugby union clubs in England and France gave notice that they would withdraw from the Heineken Cup, the competition for leading European teams. This meant that the 2013–14 event would be their last unless they changed their minds for some reason. With this competition about to start, and still almost complete uncertainty as to what would happen next season, the last couple of months have seen plenty of frantic negotiations and brinksmanship.
Behind all this are questions of power, with the clubs wanting more say in how the big competitions are run, at the expense of the national unions and the International Rugby Board. Who’s in charge would cover matters such as the number of teams taking part, and how the competition would be organised. At present, teams from six countries are involved, with regional sides from Ireland, Scotland and Wales competing. In organisational matters, England and France can be outvoted by these three countries and Italy.
And behind the wielding of power, as you might expect, is money, but with some specific variations. Heineken Cup matches have been screened by Sky for some years, and this arrangement was recently extended. But English Premiership clubs have themselves signed a deal with BT Sport that includes European games they are involved in. Under the proposed new Rugby Champions Cup, the money would be distributed in a way that benefited English and French clubs.
The uncertainty is leading to top Welsh players being signed by clubs abroad, as it is not clear what sort of contract the Welsh clubs could offer from next year. There were even claims that professional rugby in Scotland could end if no agreement were reached and the Scottish Rugby Union failed to get its annual subvention from the Heineken Cup.
‘If you look at the history of professional rugby,’ according to the chair of Saracens, ‘it has always been about this balance between union control and the clubs … The BT Sport television deal has given the English clubs more of a chance to redress that imbalance’ (Guardian, 23 September). The players and spectators barely rate a mention, of course.