Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Heineken Cup row 'can ruin rugby worldwide'

IRFU chief executive Philip Browne insists rugby as a whole will suffer if the breakaway from the Heineken Cup goes ahead

The uncompromising drive of English and French club owners poses a threat not only to the Heineken Cup but the future of professional rugby as a whole, north and south of the equator.

That is the stark warning issued by Philip Browne, the IRFU's chief executive, as the battle over ownership of the jewel in the crown of European club rugby continues to rage.

And now, with some in Wales making ominous noises which suggest they might be persuaded to throw their lot in with England's Aviva Premiership clubs, ultimately that could see the Principality's four regions leave the RaboDirect PRO12.

Browne's assessment of the ever-changing landscape is: "The fact of the matter is that if the Welsh clubs leave to play in England then they're not Welsh clubs anymore, they are English clubs.

"So there's a fundamental governance issue which involves the French Rugby Union, the English Rugby Union, the International Board and obviously the knock-on consequences for Scotland, Ireland and Italy and ultimately to the Six Nations and international rugby need to be borne in mind as well.

"This is much bigger than Ireland, this is about European rugby and international rugby as well. It is very much about governance and control and who is going to call the shots in relation to the development of the game over the next 10 years."

Emphasising what he believes is at stake, Browne added: "I read the newspapers like everyone else; they're talking about about a Top 14 television deal of anywhere between €65m and €100 million a year (£54-83m)."

With that sort of buying power behind them, the French could cherry-pick the world's best players.

"If that happens, I would be very concerned if I was in New Zealand, Australia or South Africa in terms of the future of the game there," Browne said, underlining the global implications.

If the French and English club-owners get control of the game, they would replace the Heineken Cup with a competition designed to make money for them. The potential repercussions are enormous.

"Realistically it would put us in a very difficult position," Browne admitted. "We generate probably €5-6million (£4.2-5m) from European competition on an annual basis and the provinces maybe generate the same again.

"So to take a hit of €10-12 million (£8.3-10m), and then to see a spiral in terms of commercial viability and brand strength being impacted, that has all got to have an impact.

"It is incumbent on all in European rugby to act with a little bit more maturity than we are currently appearing to do. The difficulty we have is that there are a number of club owners who have a very different position.

"Some of them have more money that the entire worth of international rugby, full stop. To them this is almost personal."

The most worrying aspect is that the IRFU is powerless when it comes to controlling the picture.

"We are are on the sidelines looking on and to a certain extent that has been the case since the word go. Everything is going to be dictated by the English Union and the French Union and their clubs.

"The tide goes in and the tide goes out and we're a cork on the tide. At the moment the French Federation have a position, so the tide has moved towards France. But the reality is we want all the English clubs and all the French clubs involved (in the Heineken Cup) as well."

Again stressing what is at stake he said: "It's not an on-going battle for governance, it's an on-going battle for controlling the revenue streams. It's a bit more subtle ,but actually what this is about is the English and French clubs would like to own the revenue streams.

"Obviously if they own the revenue streams they can dictate what happens.

"What people fail to understand – or certainly what some fail to understand – is that rugby is not soccer; rugby is not a global sport and we'd be foolish to think that it is.

"It's not, it's a very small sport played by a small number of countries at any sort of a high performance level. Maybe in 50 years it will be a global sport, but to compare it to soccer is frankly, ludicrous."

Asked if he can see a way out of the impasse, Browne replied: "What has to happen now is that we need some people who are going to deal with this in a mature and sensible fashion and find the level of compromise that is required because the reality is that we're going to dig ourselves into holes and that's not going to achieve anything.

"We've always been willing to compromise; in fact, we have compromised on the competition format and on the financial distributions. But we can't compromise on the governance; we have to govern as a whole, from schools and clubs right up to international level.

"We can't simply take a chunk or a segment of the game and say 'Well, actually, we're not going to control this bit over here, we're going to let somebody else control it'. It just doesn't work like that in sport."

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