English 'can stand on own' if other nations resist Heineken Cup TV deal
England's disaffected leading clubs did not expect news of their megabucks broadcasting deal with BT Vision to be met with a chorus of approval from Celtic nations who fear it spells the end of European rugby as they know it, and their hunch was right: there has been a fearful row. But the Premiership's top brass believe the commercial possibilities opened up by the agreement will change important minds at today's gathering of the Heineken Cup board in Dublin. If not, the English are prepared to go it alone, for as long as it takes.
Peter Tom, the Leicester chairman and one of the most influential figures in English club rugby, thinks the darkness of this hour indicates the imminent arrival of a new dawn for the northern hemisphere game. "I'm an optimist by nature," he said, "and we all have an opportunity, almost out of the blue, to take a significant step towards financial viability. We've done this deal with the best of intentions, both for the Premiership and for a Heineken Cup competition we know can be significantly improved.
"There's a lot of tribalism involved: in part, it's the tribal aspect that gives rugby its special magic, but we can't allow it to get in the way of cool-headed, sensible commercial decision-making. We have to understand that in this digital age, a lot of people – certainly a big proportion of people under 30 – watch their sport in new ways. To get a worldwide giant of a company like BT Vision on board is a serious bonus for our sport. I'd be surprised and disappointed if, after all the initial fury, most of those at the Dublin meeting fail to acknowledge the fact.
"We're not going over there for a fist fight: we think we have something very attractive to offer. But when you're trying to change something for the better, you have to accept there might be a scenario in which you find yourselves on your own. There is enough value in what we've negotiated with BT Vision to allow us to stand on our own for as long as we need to do so. I don't think that will happen, mind you."
Precise numbers have been hard to come by since Premiership Rugby announced its "game-changing" deal five days ago, but it seems that around a third of the £152m has been set aside for European rugby and would be placed in the six-nation common pot if agreement was reached. The French, also disenchanted with current Heineken Cup commercial and qualification arrangements, are currently negotiating a new television package of their own and are expected to bring money to the table in the near future.
It will then be for the Irish, Italians, Scots and Welsh to decide if these riches are worth trousering, or whether a less lucrative BSkyB contract extension signed by the current tournament administrators – despite being warned by the English that they would not be party to such an agreement under any circumstances – is more attractive.
Meanwhile, the organisers of the biggest sporting event on the English horizon, the 2015 Rugby World Cup now precisely three years distant, hope to confirm details of venues early next year following the pool draw in London on 3 December. Between 10 and 12 grounds will be used, including Twickenham, Wembley, Old Trafford and the Millennium Stadium (where Wales could play all their pool matches, to accompanying cries of "favouritism"). Two club grounds, Kingsholm in Gloucester and Welford Road in Leicester, are also under careful consideration and are expected to get the nod.
The delivery body, which needs an average gate of 58,000 across 48 matches to make the sums add up, also has an eye on the Olympic Stadium in east London, along with a handful of football venues, mostly in the North. According to the England Rugby 2015 chairman, Andrew Cosslett, some Premier League clubs are playing hard to get. "One or two have said they don't need the money and don't need their pitches churned up," he remarked yesterday, "but we still believe we'll succeed in taking the tournament into areas of the country where our battle for attention with football is at its most intense."