In the aftermath of a stunning contest between the two best sides in the world played out at Ellis Park recently, aided and abetted by Nigel Owens, the best referee out there by a street, it seems churlish to lay down a view on a Northern Hemisphere competition structure, and a war between unions, clubs and governing bodies. But for us up here, the Heineken Cup dispute is a reminder that there is a major power struggle going on.
The risk is that a tournament of much quality – witness the usual clutch of top entertainment over the weekend – will never be seen again. The Rugby World Cup is now being dragged into the mess, with Celtic Nations threatening to claim compensation from that competition, and a number of Welsh Lions about to go to France to play because the Welsh RFU cannot issue contracts due to the confusion. So what on earth is going on and does it matter?
The origin of all this is very simple – the English and French clubs receive less money than they think they deserve under the heading of pan European participation. Those clubs argue that the current reasonably even distribution of monies between all the nations is a result of a flawed international qualification system.
That system keeps out some of the best teams from the competition and those excluded would largely be English and French. Many may say this isn’t the point, that there needs to be diversity within each group and that the ‘weaker’ nations have to have a chance to develop for the good of the game.
This brings us to the other problem of history and structure. The Irish provinces are controlled and funded by the IRFU, as are the Scots and the Welsh by their respective unions. For them the Heineken is critical. If they were confined to their own Rabo Direct league, they would face financial oblivion.
The Italians are recent admissions to the top table, and very grateful for any revenue. I welcome their involvement, of course, but they rarely win matches.
The French have massive wage bills and ambitious owners. Their seemingly limitless expenditure, mainly on overseas players, and their box office appeal have given them a loud voice. At present their clubs have rather more profile than their national team, and those clubs wish for the most heavyweight European tournament possible to complement their domestic competition.
Lastly, the English. They grow increasingly powerful and bold, with a caucus of vocal owners. Many thought they wouldn’t survive let alone prosper in a professional world, least of all the Rugby Football Union. They have been left to fend for themselves, battle hardened from years of conflict with the RFU. Their ace card has been that they own the players contracts, so hold the key to international rugby availability.
Having struggled financially for many years, the new BT deal apparently represents a major step forward for them and at last presents their owners with something approaching a return for their investment.
The RFU has to be extremely careful now, with a Home World Cup on the horizon. Ian Ritchie, the new CEO, is no fool and has to keep the clubs onside to retain their cooperation. There remains a cabal inside the Union that resents the clubs ambition and Ritchie must tread carefully.
I do expect him to broker a deal because no one in European Rugby at any level can afford not to see a vibrant European Club competition, if not Heineken, then the Anglo/French alternative.
It amazes me though that amateur administrators in other countries are still allowed to influence these matters. They sit and wring their hands, when to the outside world the business owners of the English and French clubs have been deadly serious from day one. The day when Amateur and Professional administration is separated grows ever closer.
What do you see as the future of European rugby and what will it take to strike a deal?