Well, in a little under 3 weeks the Heineken Cup kicks off (Oct 11th) and all signs indicate that it could very well be the last-ever Heineken! Yes, as you will have heard, both the French and English clubs have decided to drop out of the tournament and set up their own competition.
Both the French and English clubs have had a long-term conflict with the Heineken Cup format and the governing body of the tournament, the ERC. They stated their problems more than a year ago and they feel that the ERC have done nothing to address their misgivings.
Last week they decided that they had no choice but to drop out of the Heineken and set up their own tournament. They have invited the Celtic and Italian clubs (which make up the Rabo tournament) to join the competition but have completely severed ties with the ERC and the French and English clubs will jointly be in control of the new competition.
(The 2013/2014 Heineken was due to be the last under the current deal, anyway. The ERC were going to be organising a
new tournament, much on the lines of the old set-up. The English and French clubs were adamant that important changes had to be made)
There are several problems with this new set-up:
Firstly, the Celtic and Italian clubs have jointly stated that they have no interest in joining a new competition. Secondly, the IRB (rugby’s governing body) have declared that any new tournament can not go ahead without their approval, which they are not going to give if the competition doesn’t involve clubs from all-over Europe.
Also, both rugby unions in France and England have declared that they will not give the necessary support to the new competition. It looks like the French and English clubs will fail in their bid but they’re not backing down and they may decide to break away from the IRB and set up their own regulatory body.
The French and English clubs conflict stems from the fact that they feel that the Heineken Cup is unfairly geared towards the Celtic and Italian clubs. All proceeds from the Heineken are split between the French/English clubs on one hand and the Rabo clubs on the other, with the Rabo clubs getting a higher percentage of the revenue.
They’re also unhappy with the set-up of the Heineken, feeling that too many of the teams taking part are gifted qualification rather than having earned it. They feel that this is unfair and makes for a less interesting tournament. They would like to reduce the number of teams and have qualification based on merit.
As it stands, both England and France are allowed 6 clubs in the Heineken. As both countries have more than 10 competitive teams each (the English Premiership has 12 teams while the French teams compete in the Top 14) this means there is intense competition for a place in the Heineken.
In contrast, the Celtic and Italian clubs are allowed automatic entry (eg Ireland’s top 3 teams autmatically qualify for the Heineken, but Ireland only has 4 teams anyway!) due to their smaller size. In the proposed new set-up, every club would have to gain entry into the competition on merit.
Another problem the English and French clubs have is that there is a better understanding between the Rabo and Heineken, than the Heineken with the Premiership and Top14. Teams in the Rabo can rest their top players for the important games in the Heineken, giving the Celtic and Italian teams a better chance of winning.
In England and France, the top players have no such leeway and must appear in all games in both competitions. This obviously limits their chances, due to the inevitable player burn-out. This is escpecially true in France where the top players aren’t even rested for International games, which explains, in part, France’s poor results in the 6 Nations recently.
There has been somewhat of a Celtic (specifically Ireland) dominance of the Heineken Cup in recent years, Irish teams having won 5 of the last 8 tournaments! In contrast, French clubs have only won 2 and England has a sole winner. This is in stark contrast to the early days of the tournament, where the English/French teams jointly won 9 of the first 10 Cups.
There does seem to be a certain amount of ‘childishness’ amongst the French and English clubs, escpecially the English clubs. As they aren’t winning they don’t want to take part! Whatever their reasons they seem adamant on breaking away which would be catastrophic for European rugby!
There’s no doubt that the Heineken Cup has become one of the premier (possibly the premier) tournaments in rugby, surprassing even the 6 Nations. The Heineken has certainly helped rugby in Ireland, with Leinster becoming the most succesful team in recent years, having won 3 of the last 4 tournaments.
If the Heineken Cup disbands, then rugby in Ireland will see a considerable drop in revenue, if only the Rabo competition remains. It has to be said that the Rabo doesn’t receive nearly as much interest as the Heineken and nobody really takes note of the Rabo until the semi-final stage.
Leinster won’t get the same crowds they would for a game against the top teams in France and England. Likewise, the players won’t get the same challenge if they’re not playing against the top team. The same problems face the teams in Scotland, Wales and Italy.
Also, the English and French clubs are severly overestimating interest in a solely Anglo-French tournament. As I’ve stated, Leinster has become one of the top teams in Europe in recent years, with some world-class players. Any tournament they don’t compete in will be poorer for their absence.
Hopefully all sides will be able to come to a compromise (the ERC have elected a moderator to try to discuss with the
English and French clubs, the English/French clubs say the time for that is long past). Rugby’s future hasn’t being this uncertain since the game went professional in 1995!
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