Rugby break-away on the cards?

November 14, 2011
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According to news reports from the United Kingdom, a ‘violent breakaway’ from current rugby controlling bodies to form a new global league may not be too far off.

Guardian UK – Robert Kitson

Secret plans to transform European domestic rugby union are being considered by French and English sides keen to put the professional club game on a firmer financial footing. One leading official from aPremiership club is warning of a possible “violent breakaway” by wealthier European clubs, with teams in South Africa understood to be monitoring the situation.

With a new Heineken Cup season kicking off this weekend, the Guardian can reveal that separate proposals are on the table to create a world club championship, bringing together the best eight non-international sides from both hemispheres. The champions of the Aviva Premiership, RaboPro12 and French Top 14 leagues, plus the Heineken Cup winners, would be invited to play the table-topping sides in New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, plus the Super 15 champions.

Money, as usual, is at the heart of the matter. The Heineken Cup is run by European Rugby Cup Ltd which acts on behalf of the unions involved. Tournament turnover has doubled in five years to just over €50m (£43m) but there are many who believe the competition is capable of generating far more. The 12 Premiership clubs receive only around €1m apiece for competing in Europe, although successful teams will earn more through increased sponsorship and gate revenue.

The frustrated clubs are aware the existing five-year ERC accord ends in June, although any stakeholder wishing to exit the tournament is still required to give two years’ notice. All the tournament’s major TV contracts expire in 2014 and Heineken’s title sponsorship deal runs until 2013. The strict salary cap in England remains a further bone of contention for millionaire club owners who, despite the economic turmoil across Europe, are seeking to expand.

“From an English and French clubs’ point of view the Heineken Cup is a growing competition but it is essentially controlled by the unions and played by the clubs,” said a prominent club figure. “There are some English and French clubs who do not regard that as an ideal situation. There is also a growing weariness in South Africa with Sanzar [South Africa, New Zealand and Australia Rugby]. They feel they’re at a playing disadvantage by constantly having to travel and, despite having more commercial pulling power, do not get a proportionally bigger share of the revenue. They feel South Africa is subsidising Australia and New Zealand, which are relatively small markets.”

If Saracens’ experiment of playing a Heineken Cup pool match in Cape Town in January proves a commercial success it will encourage those who believe the world’s best club competition should not be restricted to six countries. A global calendar, with more rugby scheduled in the northern hemisphere summer, is on the wishlist. “My suspicion is that you’re not going to get these sort of changes by consensus,” the source added. “There will be a violent breakaway, probably. All the ingredients are there. If you look at the countries with maximum television rights and sponsorship potential – England, France and South Africa – they’re all in the same time zone.

“Any sort of alliance between them would have serious consequences for Australia, New Zealand and the Celtic unions as well. There are certain common interests which might lead to some kind of [new] competition but there is still an awful lot of detail to be worked through.”

The ramifications of any split would be enormous, not least for the Rugby Football Union and the French Rugby Federation. There will be shivers of alarm in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, who do not boast such large populations. A less apocalyptic scenario being pursued by Premiership Rugby, the body which represents the 12 leading English clubs, is to stage more offshore games. They believe European club rugby could emulate golf, which holds regular Tour events in Asia and the Middle East.

Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, acknowledges fixture congestion and player welfare remain major concerns but confirms a world club championship is back on the agenda: “We have ambitious clubs and we’ll look to see if we can create these things. Europe has got to continue to be ambitious and push the boundaries. Sometimes we get frustrated about the pace of progress. It has come a long way in a few years but I think it can go even further.

“One of the advantages of a recession is that people realise you have to do things differently to generate interest. We’re inching towards a scenario where there might be more frequent competitive matches between northern and southern hemisphere clubs, not just friendlies.”

The surprise re-election of Jean Pierre Lux as ERC chairman ahead of England’s Peter Wheeler has irked the bigger clubs, with McCafferty calling for a third European competition to be introduced to expand the game beyond its traditional heartlands. “We feel there needs to be a stronger form of leadership and governance within ERC. We’ve got to try and embrace the emerging countries: Russia, Spain, Romania, Georgia etc. The Heineken Cup shouldn’t just be limited to six countries.”

Others, though, insist the current formula is fine. Derek McGrath, ERC’s chief executive, is a fan of Saracens’ Cape Town initiative but says the existing structure is largely working. “At the moment in Europe we’re probably talking to a loyal rugby audience of 30 million. We believe there’s a potential loyal audience of 70 million in Europe and, clearly, a lot more globally. Rugby is back in the Olympics and there is no question that is opening doors already. But our broadcasters and sponsors are saying they want to see stability. This tournament is still on an upward curve. Our objective is for the Heineken Cup to be the most competitive tournament in the world. We want to expand our frontiers.”

Leinster’s chief executive Mick Dawson cast doubt on the wisdom of English and French clubs attempting to break away. “I’m on ERC’s commercial and marketing committee and I know the English clubs well. I’d say the monies generated by the TV contracts are quite big and competitive. Everyone says ‘You can get more money’ until they actually have to go and get it. Is there a whole pot load of money out there that we’re missing? I doubt it.”

The Irish province, the European champions, has seen its turnover figures quadruple inside seven years under the existing format. “The thing about running away is that you need people to play against. I think the Heineken Cup is elite enough at the moment. Winning it gives you serious credibility and it’s easier to sell your wares. You can’t buy what it does for you.”

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18 Comments

  1. avatar Boertjie says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    This is VERRRRY interesting.

    IMO it points in the direction I
    predicted:
    That international teams (Boks, Wales etc.)
    are going to play less – maybe just the
    WC every 4 years?
    By far the most focus in soccer is on clubs,
    rugby to follow the trend.

    And remember, a year only has 365 days.

    AFAIK the Super 15 is contracted up to
    2015.

  2. avatar Morné says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    Ja I think before anyone shoots down what is being said above I actually believe there is some merit in it.

    Rugby has to move to a global season, and has to become a global sport not just the 10 Nations that currently enjoys the spoils (SH 4N and NH 6N – perhaps excluding newbies Arg).

    Where I disagree is on the split solving anything – the splinter group will also form some kind of ‘union’ to ‘govern’ proceedings – more of the same shit.

    I am very happy with ‘club’ competitions being the massive money spinner for rugby union where ‘test’ rugby goes back to the days of old – test series’.

    You would probably see the Boks play in 6 to 8 tests only (2 series’ a year) rather than the current 12 – 14 tests but perhaps that will just bring the magic and romanticism back to the game.

    As far as the club scene goes – I would love to see Stade, Sarries and any of the Heineken Cup teams come play in SA ever so often. I am all for a global ‘club’ season.

  3. avatar Boertjie says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    Can’t see a breakaway from the IRB – that
    won’t work.
    Whatever happens will have to be within
    the existing confines.
    And I can’t see room for SA franchises
    fitting in more games, unless they are
    pre-season “warmups.”
    Unless they make use of the dates set
    aside for the Currie Cup?

  4. avatar DavidS says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    There were two revolutions in world cricket.

    The first was in 1976 when Kerry Packer rudely broke the back of amateurism.

    The ICC was not “destroyed”, but it had to make some radical adaptions and quickly fire off a lot of ancient wood to step up to reality.

    That was the result in the ICC at its best in the 1980′s and 1990′s.

    In 2003 South Africa for the first time ever sided with India and Sri Lanka and Pakistan and they gave Bangladesh test ststus. Zimbabwe followed suit

    And that was the end of the old England / Australia / New Zealand / South Africa / West Indies hegemony over cricket.

    The ICC moved to Dubai

    And the rest is a sell out to Indian commercialism and worldwide death of cricket.

    Rugby professionalism would do very well to take note of that second change.

    The old Anglo Saxonic farts farted the game to the third world bribery and corruption that is India and Pakistan as opposed to the “Ho! Ho! Hail fellow well met.” wink wink nudge nudge Old Boys Club shenannigans.

    The latter was far less harmful and successfully negotiated the game into professionalism but were not, like soccer bosses, suited to negotiate its path into commercial consumerism…

    Rugby’s Anglo Saxon Celtic hegemony would do well to start the road to consumerist commercialism.

    Or they could end up being an irrelevant footnote in a game they no longer rule.

    In the case of New Zealand in particular (which leads the Old Boys Club) this would be just desserts for trying to retain their power position over the game at the cost of the life of the game of rugby itself.

  5. avatar DavidS says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    If South Africa with its massive financial contribution to the Murdoch deal (SS pays over 40% of the television deal rights and we contribute almost 60% of sponsorship money) and move north we will literally kill rugby in Australia and New Zealand and in all honesty they deserve it given the way they have fobbed us off in the last fifteen years like two wannabe trendy city slicker teenager girls trying to escape and hang out alone on the beach far away from a boorish rich kid farmer with a crush on them. They are quite prepared to take his offerings of chocolates, ice creams and cool drinks and jewelry as long as he then gets away from them and nobody sees them as mixing with him on a social sense.

  6. avatar Duiwel says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Interesting analogy.

    I think we should consider it wisely,
    surely we owe aus and NZ nothing.
    No friends
    no fronts
    no deals

  7. avatar its a 15 man game - embrace it! says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 8:26 pm

    I agree with a global club season (as punted by Morne) on the condition that clubs are still restricted in the amount of foreign players they are allowed to use.

    In this way you maintain what makes international rugby union better than international soccer.

    Still I cannot see individual unions kick up too much of a fuss if the club game generates serious cash currently generated mostly by International games.

    Exciting times nonetheless. Change is imminent.

  8. avatar Duiwel says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    Ja-ja,exciting times indeed,
    as long as we are not led to believe
    that the NH rugby is the yardstick.
    As we all know ,its not.
    New Zealand is.
    At S15 and 3N and international level.

    Iwould like us to play them less
    simply that if we lose against them
    it is not accepted as normal.

  9. avatar Duiwel says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Wheres my vissie and bonie OomD?

  10. avatar Duiwel says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    :ghost: :mrgreen:

  11. avatar Duiwel says:
    November 14th, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    :cheers:

  12. avatar bryce_in_oz says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 1:19 am

    Would love to see the top ‘world’ clubs playing each other… but if that were to become a tournament… there’d be fat too much rugby and S15 would suffer…

    Take away the S15 and you destroy at least 3 of the 5 big unions in RSA fiscally… they’ll be stuck playing the CC for a few pathetic Rands rather than be on the massive contracts they are on now… and with that… they’d say good-bye to their player-base who would emigrate in droves…

    Cannot see anything of the sort happening in the next 5 yrs other than exhibition matches…

    Cannot see NH (or SH) teams finding it much fun playing games in 40 degree heat in RSA or AUS in a January either.

  13. avatar Kat says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 10:21 am

    I will be over the moon when the end of Super and TN rugby is upon us. I want to see SH teams play NH teams on a regular basis. For us to play European teams will mean shorter tours and better time zones. I would love to see my Lions play teams like Sarries, etc. The challenge will then be to retain our players but I’m sure rules/mechanisms can be set to protect the unions/clubs all ’round. We are in a far more favourable position than NZ and Aus teams to get this to work. Why try so hard at our own expense to make rugby work in Australia? We gain nothing from that. Maybe an East vs West paradigm is more appropriate now than the old North vs South one. We obviously belong in the West and NZ and Australia in the East (with Japan, etc).

  14. avatar bryce_in_oz says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 10:32 am

    Reply to Kat @ 10:21 am:

    East/West/North/South… as the article infers it’s a ‘global season’ they’re after with the best of the S15 and conference winner’s playing the best of the North…

    Your Lions would as it stands more than likely not be included nor one or two others… none of the big 5 could sustain themselves on only Currie Cup rugby and with that say goodbye to quality depth and the funds to afford it…

    That’s the one big positive about the S15 in it’s new form… it forces depth upon the big 5 by having to have bigger squads expose themselves to rugby on a whole other level to Currie Cup.

  15. avatar biltongbek says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    to be honest I think SARU must think carefully about this, I realise this might be a bridge too far, but hey, who knows. :Rule 9:

    If the English Premiership clubs and French top 14 clubs are considering this then we need to be astute in our thinking.

    We have three more currie cup teams who are looking to make some money.

    Keep 5 teams in the Super 15, and get the other three into this NH club tournament.

    This way we can have the 8 premier currie cup franchises develop their grass roots, which would provide us with more depth of talent and definitely more money.

    SARU just needs to figure out how to qualify the 8 teams into which competition.

  16. avatar Sauce says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    If this give us a global season i am all for it.

    I am also no fan of the expanded Super 15, nor the Tri-Nations which is pretty much a bore fest given the regularity we play these teams and players.

  17. avatar Kat says:
    November 15th, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Reply to bryce_in_oz @ 10:32 am: I say East|West because it makes more sense from a time zone and distance perspective. The strongest teams from each can then fight it out at the end for the world crown. I propose this instead of the North|South end clash proposed by some. I just cannot see European clubs agreeing to regularly play in NZ considering the distance, time zones and TV broadcasts.

  18. avatar Kevin_rack says:
    November 16th, 2011 at 11:28 pm

    Something has to happen to Rugby in its current form. The IRB are old farts whose petty political bias and racist tendancies is destroying the game. The RWC 2011 is an example of this poor management and small mindedness.

    Something needs to be done by about the rugby season let alone the IRB old farts club.

    South Africa is in a great position to play in the north and the S15. The alliance with Australia and New Zealand is not good for our rugby. We need to show who is boss in SANZOO or kick it into to touch.

    Reply to Kat @ 10:21 am: I agree. Some may argue that we need the SANZOO alliance. I say fuck them. The SANZOO alliance has kept South Africa over the barrel far too long, they want our money but not our participation on a fair playing field.

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