Sunday, 15 July 2012

Heineken Cup squabbles & the future of European rugby union

There'll almost certainly be a compromise, but why have English
clubs decided to give notice to withdraw from the Heineken Cup?
(Pic : Wikipedia)

A few weeks ago, English Premiership rugby union sides announced their intention to withdraw from the Heineken Cup, giving the requisite two seasons notice in time for the 2014-15 season. The French Top-14 sides have also made murmurings threatening to withdraw, but nothing official yet.

I'm not a big follower of rugby, I have to admit that, but I presume this is some sort of bargaining tool to either increase money, increase the number of participating teams from the English Premiership and Top-14, or to change the competition in other, more significant, ways.

I imagine any negotiations will result in fundamental changes, with discussions about the future of the European rugby competitions due in August. But what could these changes be?

What do they want?

The Telegraph have reported that the English sides (and presumably the French sides too) might specifically want:
  • A 20-team Heineken Cup (with 6 sides each from England and France) reduced from the current 24-team format. The winners of the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup would be given automatic places in the following season's Heineken Cup, leaving 6 places for Pro12 sides (compared to the current 10 guaranteed places).
  • A 20-team Challenge Cup (as is currently), with two sides qualifying from:
  • A new "third-tier" competition for sides from emerging European nations like Spain, Georgia, Russia, Portugal etc.

Looking at it, I don't think it's expansion into other "European markets" that the English and French sides are after. Having two sides from "emerging nations" doesn't scream that. I think this could be aimed at South Africa.

South African teams play in the pan-southern hemisphere Super 15, but share a time zone with Europe. No doubt their current competitions cause problems, with Australia and New Zealand having a lot more in common with one another than with South Africa. Having clubs from a powerhouse like South Africa in the Heineken Cup might go some way to "re-balance" the competition, which has been dominated by "unfashionable" Pro12 (mostly Irish) sides in the last few years, and shows no signs of stopping. By reducing the competition to 20 sides, they could be making room for possible South African involvement at some point in the future.

Perhaps a much simpler compromise can be reached – an expansion of the HC itself, maybe to 32 teams - which would inevitably be filled by English and French clubs (and perhaps token extra sides from emerging nations like Portugal, Spain, Romania, Georgia & Russia). But that could completely undermine the Challenge Cup.

It could also be part of a power struggle within England and France. With the Rugby World Cup in 2015 being hosted by England, many Premiership sides are being encouraged to make significant investments in their stadia. We've had the recent farce of London Welsh being initially denied promotion due to ground issues. Perhaps the English sides are threatening to withdraw to put pressure on the RFU to go easier on them, or to introduce their own reforms to make English teams more competitive – a rise in salary caps for instance, or in squad numbers to allow more squad rotation for HC games.

The same, perhaps, could be said for the French sides. Maybe they want to streamline European competitions to make the Top14 more attractive, or even to enable expansion. The threat of withdrawal by both England and France will probably get the Pro12 sides to the negotiating table. Losing one won't make that much of a difference - it's happened before - but losing both England and France would be significant.

Maybe they want something more dramatic in the medium to long term – a fully blown European league, with relegation and promotion – and the HC as it is, becoming a straight knockout competition. Despite the difficulties of getting something like that up and running, I think it's inevitable at some point in the future. I've mentioned it before when I looked at possible reforms in Welsh rugby back in February. However, I don't see the French sides signing up to that at the moment when the Top-14 is the main interest for their sides - and a major source of income.

Taking lessons from UEFA

If the issue is around the number of sides from the Pro12 in the competition, then lessons will likely need to be taken from football.

UEFA competitions operate using a "coefficient", which measures performance over several years in continental competitions, and shares out the qualifying places based on that.

When a league's teams perform well, they get more places. On merit, Ireland alone would probably be able to justify four HC places. As performances change over time, then the number of qualifiers will change too, but I doubt this approach would please everybody.

A rugby coefficient could be created, with each nation guaranteed a certain number of participants (i.e England & France 3/4 each, Ireland & Wales 2 each , Scotland and Italy 1 each), with the remainder of spaces shared out based on a nation's sides performance in the HC over three to five year period.


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