21 Sep 2012

BT Vision's proposed breakaway plunges European Rugby into chaos

Digested the news yet? Rugby in Europe may be booming like never before, but it could be about to experience the greatest single sporting revolution since Kerry Packer's sojourn into World Series Cricket in the mid 1970's; an upheaval which changed the way the Gentleman's game was played forever..

I'm not talking about rugby players wearing multi-coloured pyjamas as was the case back then. Parisien club Stade Francais have that covered already! This rugby revolution has potentially very far reaching consequences, especially for the Celts.

If you haven't heard yet, Premiership Rugby agreed an astonishing £152 million contract with BT Vision last week, securing rights to broadcast English domestic rugby matches, in addition to European matches involving English clubs from the 2014-15 season onwards.

By that time, the current agreement governing continental competition will have expired, paving the way for a potential restructuring of the European game or a 'new dazzling European tournament' as was described by BT Vision's Chief Executive Marc Watson.

Confusingly though, the announcement came just a few hours before European Cup Rugby (ERC) also revealed a four year extension with Sky TV, who currently showcase Europe's premier rugby competition; the Heineken Cup.

The disputed deal with BT Vision has therefore resulted in English clubs standing accused of 'breaching global rugby regulations', displaying brazen arrogance and plunging the European game into both chaos and open warfare over broadcasting rights.

This week, Welsh online sporting retailers; Shop Rugby, give us their view on the announcement.

The Heineken Cup – But not as we know it

Sports pages on the continent have been bristling of late, while the airwaves have been filled with both optimistic and disgruntled fans (depending on the region), following the news of a potential restructuring of the European rugby scene.

On the surface the decision seems to be a question of simple economics.

The tournament’s organisers, European Rugby Cup Ltd, will have to choose between a four-year, £70m deal with Sky, which would start from the 2014-15 season, or a deal from BT Vision worth more than 50 per cent more.

Whether the BT deal is good for the game is unclear. Existing broadcasters, Sky, already have a massive viewership and BT could suffer the same problems ITV's Irish broadcasters Setanta did in the previous decade, in luring customers to fork out extra dosh to watch the live games, when many already have a SKY/ESPN subscription.

Money as we all know though, talks. So it is no surprise to see the BT Vision proposal accepted by Premiership rugby executives.

Adding fuel to the fires of change has been much wrangling from an Anglo-French alliance, unhappy with perceived advantages arguably lesser clubs in the RabboDirect Pro 12 currently enjoy qualifying for Europe’s top table.

Currently 24 teams from six countries compete in the Heineken Cup, consisting of six teams from England and France, three teams from Wales and Ireland and two teams from Scotland and Italy.

Weaker sides such as Italian outfit, Treviso, have an unfair advantage according to Premiership Rugby.

While this may sound favourable to the English and French, the main bone of contention is that whilst they must endure a long, hard season to ensure qualification for the HC (or indeed avoid relegation domestically) through good performance in their domestic league and cup competitions, the two teams from Scotland and Italy for example are able to finish in the bottom four of the RabboDirect Pro 12 (their domestic league competition), avoid relegation and still qualify for the Heineken Cup!

The French and English teams do seem to have a justifiable argument there. The tournament appears lopsided and perhaps recent statistics speak for themselves.

Five of the last seven finals have been won by either Leinster or Munster (both Celtic clubs). Many believe that their ability to rest top players in the lead-up to big knockout games has given them an edge.

Prior to the glory years, nine of the 10 winners of the competition had either come from English or French shores too.

One could argue though that perhaps the English and French need to get their own house in order, rather than punish those who are thriving due to a quality domestic set-up.

Celtic nations have acknowledged that qualification is currently unfairly stacked in favour of the sides competing in the Pro 12, but a more diplomatic resolution would be more respected.

The power base of European rugby ultimately lies in France and England though, with some of their club sides, particularly the French, boasting an embarrassment of riches. A large proportion of the money earned through TV deals comes from English and French audiences.

One suspects whichever way the French lean may sway the whole process. Thus far, although they have conceded that they share similar grievances to the English Premiership clubs, they have not come out in support of a fully fledged break-away tournament

As in professional sport the world over though, money talks and it is the view of many in the game that the current qualification structure undermines European rugby’s premier club tournament, with strong teams from the France and England omitted in favour of weaker teams like Zebre and Benetton Treviso from Italy.

This disparity has led to the announcement of a poropsed withdrawal of French and English teams from both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups if there is no change to the qualification process by the time the current television deal expires in 2014.

Watch this space. Further talks are due in Rome on 8 October, but all those who love the game at this level will be dearly hoping a resolution can be sought.

 What are your thoughts on the deal? Do you want to see changes or are you happy with the current format?

 Author: Shop Rugby is a leading online sports retailer and Wales’ first specialist rugby shop. For great prices, all the latest kits and rugby equipment for men, women and children, pop along to our website.


  1. Great article Rachel.

    I think everyone would like to see a diplomatic resolution as we all want a truly European competition. Having an Anglo/French break-away would be a great shame.

    Personally I think there is room to slightly re-format the tournament in terms of qualification. Premiership Rugby seem to have been a little heavy handed in their approach though, and as an Englishman, I hope it doesn't backfire.

  2. "Currently 24 teams from six countries compete in the Heineken Cup, consisting of six teams from England and France, three teams from Wales and Ireland and two teams from Scotland and Italy. "

    6 From England
    6 From France
    3 from Wales
    3 from Ireland
    2 from Scotland
    2 from Italy

    Maths is hard, but I only make that 22 :)

    1. Actually it's factually correct.

      22 places are awarded by country.

      The remaining two places are awarded to the winner of the Heineken cup and European Challenge Cup.

      "If a trophy winner has already qualified for the Heineken Cup by virtue of its league position, that country will receive an extra Heineken Cup place (assuming that the country has an extra team that can take up a place; Scotland has only two top-level professional teams, as does Italy since the 2010–11 season).

      However, England and France are capped at seven Heineken Cup places each. If either country produces the winners of both European cups, the last place will be filled by the highest ERC-ranked club not of that nation to not have otherwise qualified.

      The latter rule also applies if one of Scotland's two Pro 12 teams wins a European trophy. London Wasps could have benefited if either Clermont or Edinburgh had won the 2011–12 Heineken Cup, but both those clubs lost in the semi-finals, ending Wasps' hopes of a Heineken Cup lifeline."

  3. Given that 5 of the last 7 winners have come from the Rabo league, it seems astonishing that they are the ones being squeezed. particularly when you also consider that Ireland and Wales have favourable records in the 6Ns compared to the English and French.
    I haven't seen any rational explanation for the cut in teams either

    1. One argument is that by allowing 'weaker' sides to automatically qualify, the pools in which those teams sit are easier, and have a much increased likelihood of containing one of the best loser slots, skewing progression somewhat.

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