Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

European prizes appear set for a major overhaul

The Heineken Cup and its sister-tournament, the Amlin Cup, kick off this weekend against a backdrop of on-going speculation amid negotiations on the future format of the two competitions.

The English and French clubs are hard-balling, with the former demanding change — without yet having specified what exactly they require — and the latter having tabled suggestions as to what they would like to see.

In addition, England’s Premiership Rugby, as a body, has negotiated a new television contract with BT, in apparent contravention of the rules of the ERC whose deal is with Sky Sports. Now the threat is that the English may break away.

Effectively, the English and French want greater representation in the Heineken Cup, with their PRO12 counterparts forfeiting some of the 11 places they occupy at this stage.

The Premiership and Top 14 giants maintain that because there is no relegation from the PRO12, clubs competing in that tournament are able to rest key players so that they are fresh for appearances on the European stage with its lucrative TV money rewards.

That money itself is an issue, too, with the French and English feeling that while they are responsible for generating most of it, others receive an unjustifiably disproportionate share.

Last year there were no French sides beyond the quarter-final stage of the Heineken Cup, while only one English club — Mark McCall’s Saracens — made the semis where they were joined by Leinster, Ulster and Edinburgh.

Representatives of ERC's stakeholders had their second meeting of the consultation process on Monday in Rome, with the talks lasting for six hours.

A terse statement said the meeting had featured “comprehensive discussion on a broad range of issues raised by stakeholders including the structure and format of the European club rugby tournaments”.

Each of the participants expressed the desire to see European club rugby’s tournaments continue to grow and develop and to involve all of the current participant stakeholders.

But detail of how that is to be achieved still has to be decided, with a further meeting now scheduled for Dublin on October 30.

The current Accord runs until the end of next season, leaving ample time to resolve things.

However the stakeholders would prefer to have an agreement in place well before then.