Will turkeys vote for Christmas?

11/09/2013

Like many, I too have been angered at how Europe’s top rugby competition has been allowed to degenerate into its current state.

At first I was angry with Premier Rugby who appear to be pushing all the buttons, dare I say it even attempting to bully the rest into some sort of submission. But upon reflection, whereas I disagree with their effort at diplomacy, their alternative suggestions do carry real merit.

This is more about what happens when two structures collide rather than the specific personalities. The IRFU stands alone and owns outright each of its professional teams. English, French and Welsh clubs are owned independent of their respective union, each have a voice and that is at the heart of the issue.

It is however questionable that two member bodies (PR & LNR) of the ERC would release statements the eve before an important meeting suggesting that negotiations were dead in the water. They are supposed to be slap-bang in the middle of a process that was defined and agreed by all members some time ago, they signed up to the timeframes two years ago!

However their obvious frustration is palpable and it’s shared by supporters and fans. If you can put aside the arrogant behaviour, Premier Rugby and LNR actually have a good alternative proposal which critically would require the support of other ERC members who through their intransigence, may be accuse of not taking their responsibilities seriously.

To understand the problems, first we need to understand the make-up of the organisation.

ERC as an organisation are facilitators, they don’t make organisational decisions on their own. Rather their job is to carry out the wishes or their board.

Back in the day the respective Unions were responsible for governing the game in their particular jurisdiction and that remains true today. The ERC was originally the brainchild of the Unions who recognised the need for top quality professional club rugby on a pan European basis. They came together and the IRB agreed the new ERC competitions would be good for developing the game and they agreed to sanction the new ERC competitions, and we have all enjoyed the fruits of their labour.

Remember the ERC competitions are still by invitation only. The ERC issue invitations to the unions who in turn nominate teams to participate, that nomination process differs between Unions and for Ireland has roots pre-Celtic League in the days of the Inter-pro series.

Over the years as the game has grown, the English and French clubs formed their own organisations to act on behalf of the clubs and some distance grew between the club representatives and their governing body. Premier Rugby in England and the LNR in France were added to the ERC board and have participated fully.

Essentially the ERC board is made up of delegates from the IRFU, RFU, SRU, WRU, FFR, FIR, Premiership Rugby and LNR and each have a say in how the organisation is run.

So what is the problem?

The LNR are in a long term battle with the French governing body (FFR) over an already crowded rugby calendar, their season presently extends two months beyond that of the Celtic nations and they desperately want a reduction in the amount of games their top teams play.

The top French teams are backed by billionaire owners who are into the sport for the love of the game and they don’t expect to get a ‘return on investment’ therefore money is not a huge motivation for them. Premier Rugby on the other hand are struggling financially with current cash in the bank of £66K and a book value of -£223,740 at their last accounts.

In September 2012 Premier Rugby announced a new TV deal with BT Sport to the value of £152m which covered four year rights to Premiership Rugby Games plus the English clubs games to be played in Europe from 2014-15 for three years. It also includes TV coverage of the JP Morgan 7’s series. It was quite a coup for BT and one hell of a deal as they get three tournaments for a relatively modest sum of £38m per year... it was money Premier Rugby were in no position to refuse. It should also be noted that Premier Rugby have not divulged how much of that money is set aside for European Competitions so we have no real barometer of what’s on offer for any new competition. Meanwhile a few days later the ERC announced an exclusive deal with Sky to cover European Games for a further 4 years and the trouble began brewing.

The English and French clubs announced their intention to pull out of ERC competitions from 2014. This isn’t as drastic as it sounds and happens when one stakeholder requires part of the current Accord to be re-negotiated. Following protocol this kicked off a 2 year process to re-negotiate the terms of the ERC Accord.

As part of that re-negotiation Premier Rugby tabled a proposal to ERC board members which to summarise includes a reduction in teams playing in the Heineken cup from 24 to 20, and stipulates that qualification should be merit based on the final standings of the respective leagues. Few people could argue with that, it would undoubtedly make the series more competitive and also help reduce the number of games played. The Amlin could be used for teams to develop and a seat at the top table would have to be earned.

However the ‘Structure’ is ancillary to the real problem... money.

At present the money is divided between the Unions (they are the founders of ERC) who disseminate their share to their respective competing teams. The Pro12 is made up of 3 Unions, therefore the Pro12 share of ERC revenue is much greater than that of the other leagues.

Premier Rugby has proposed that the revenue split should be based on Leagues rather than Unions. If that were the case the Irish would be marginally better off due to their success in the competitions, however the French and English clubs would benefit by a significant increase in revenue.

What would that mean for Ireland?

Based on our success in the ERC competitions, there would be very little change to our finances, a modest increase has been mooted provided we continued to perform well in both competitions, however we would be moving forward without a safety net.

At present the Irish are assured a slice of the revenue because we are guaranteed 3 teams in the Heineken Cup and that allows the IRFU to forecast their budget with a degree of certainty. This in turn allows us to allocate funding to the professional and amateur game in Ireland and the Irish Rugby pyramid continues to operate.

So nothing much would change based on historic performances, however consider the scenario where Ireland only has one or possibly two teams qualify for the Heineken Cup based on the Pro12 standings, the picture becomes an altogether different one.

The performance of our provinces in the Pro12 becomes critical, player management programmes get called into question as every game is ‘must win’ and ‘resting players’ is no longer an option. Players end up playing more games and the carrot of ‘player management’ is taken off the bargaining table when IRFU contracts are being negotiated. We can no longer offer players a less strenuous working environment and our ability to retain top players within Ireland is seriously compromised.

The day to day performance of the provinces now impacts the core finances of the IRFU, in the past ERC money was a given.

This single anomaly would be the catalyst for a major rethink of all IRFU policies which at present are focused on ensuring the success of the Irish senior team. Success of the provinces in terms of generating finances would become every bit as important as the Irish senior team and that is perhaps the biggest hurdle to be overcome. The English, French and Welsh clubs are owned independently of their respective unions so this is already a fact of life for them.

A fundamental paradigm shift by the IRFU would be required, and perhaps this is one reason why negotiations have become so protracted, but what has become clear is the status quo cannot be maintained and change is inevitable.

Making the transition from amateur to professional rugby the IRFU were heralded as a shining light with central contracts and a union that had outright ownership of the professional teams. At present that model now seems out of touch with modern professional rugby. The reality is, success in rugby is based on winning, it could be argued that Ireland has enjoyed the luxury of a safety net and now it’s time to do it for real like everyone else.

We’ve had 17 years of ERC competitions, and when you look at how the Heineken Cup has grown in that time, the various threats it has seen off, you begin to appreciate the value, knowledge and experience that is contained within the ERC.

For me, the biggest shame of all would not be for a half-assed fractured European competition, it would be for us to see the knowledge and experience that has been built over 17 years, being chucked in the bin. Those structures, procedures and systems have been fine tuned over the years and are now at maximum efficiency. Do we really need to go through all that pain when there is a finely tuned and well oiled organisation in Dublin?

In some respects, the current impasse is a bit like asking turkeys to vote on Christmas. Irrespective of the vote, Christmas will come around and turkey will be on the menu.

 

 

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