Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Battle Lines Being Drawn in European Rugby World

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Battle Lines Being Drawn in European Rugby World

Article excerpt

The organizing body for Europe's two main rugby tournaments is in the midst of a dispute with domestic leagues over television rights and the qualifying process for the Heineken Cup.

The future of the Heineken Cup remains in serious doubt as European rugby's power brokers battle for change.

The European Rugby Cup, better known as the E.R.C., was established in 1995 to run the Heineken Cup and the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup.

The E.R.C. comprises representatives from each of the six countries -- England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales -- whose clubs, provinces and regions are involved in the two competitions. It has rarely been a happy marriage, given the disparate interests of those involved and the greater financial clout wielded by English and French clubs compared to their Celtic and Italian counterparts.

This latest controversy stems from the English clubs' announcement last week of their own unilateral four-year broadcast deal that will see BT Vision pay Pounds 152 million, or about $247 million, to show Premiership matches starting next season and European fixtures involving Premiership clubs starting in 2014.

That follows an announcement in June by English and French clubs that they would quit the Heineken Cup after the competition next season if changes to the format and qualifying criteria of European rugby were not made.

The battle lines have been drawn, because the E.R.C. is solely responsible for negotiating broadcast deals for the Heineken and Amlin Cups. It said it had lined up its own new four-year contract extension with Sky Sports starting in 2014, worth Pounds 70 million - - a deal it claimed the English clubs had agreed to.

Premiership Rugby, the umbrella organization for the 12 English Premiership clubs, disputes that, saying that when that contract extension was agreed on, it had already given notice that it would not be in the tournament then.

Its decision to strike a broadcast deal on its own is a high- risk strategy that could yet backfire.

It had been hoped a meeting of all E.R.C. representatives in Dublin on Tuesday would bring about some resolution, but despite what were characterized as "positive" talks, none of the major issues were resolved. A new meeting has been scheduled for Rome on Oct. 8.

Should the English and French clubs withdraw from the Heineken Cup, severe ramifications would follow for professional rugby in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, whose teams depend on the vital revenue stream from European rugby to stay afloat. A competition without the French and the English is a far less attractive package to broadcasters.

There have been rumblings of discontent by English and French clubs for several months now.

The French want the Heineken Cup to finish in April so their domestic Top 14 can take precedence in May, when the Top 14 playoffs begin. …

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